Latest News

SpaceX Launches, Lands Reused First Stage, Recovers Payload Fairing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Mar-2017 (Updated: 30-Mar-2017 11:34 PM)

SpaceX successfully launched the SES-10 communications satellite today with a reused Falcon 9 first stage.  The first stage then was recovered for a second time, safely landing on a drone ship at sea.  SpaceX CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk said his goal is for first stages to be used 10 times with no changes other than replacing the fuel, or 100 times with a moderate amount of hardware refurbishment.  Also, for the first time SpaceX recovered the payload fairing that protects the spacecraft during the launch.

During a post-launch press conference, Musk and Martin Halliwell, SES Chief Technology Officer, called the launch historic. 

Lifting off on time at 6:27 pm ET from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A), the Falcon 9 first and second stages safely delivered SES-10 into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO).  Onboard systems will take it the rest of the way to its final destination in geostationary orbit above the equator.

Launch of SpaceX Falcon 9 with reused first stage from Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex 39A, March 30, 2017.  Photo credit:  SpaceX.

The rocket's first stage originally was used to launch a commercial cargo mission for NASA to the International Space Station on April 8, 2016. It landed on one of SpaceX's two autonomous drone ships, Of Course I Still Love You, and was returned to the company and readied for a second launch.   During the press conference, Musk said his goal is to make these stages ready for reuse within 24 hours and use them 10 times, replacing only the fuel. If they undergo a moderate amount of hardware refurbishment, they could be used 100 times, he said.

As has become common practice for SpaceX, after the first stage finished sending the second stage and the satellite on their way to orbit, it returned and landed -- for a second time -- on the same drone ship as in 2016.

Falcon 9 first stage after landing on drone ship Of Course I Still Love You for the second time, March 30, 2017.  This is the first reuse of a Falcon 9 first stage; this one landed on the same drone ship on April 8, 2016 after sending a cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA.  Photo credit:  Screengrab from SpaceX webcast.

For the first time, SpaceX also recovered the payload fairing, the conical shaped structure on top of the rocket that surrounds and protects the spacecraft during launch.  The fairing separates from the spacecraft in two sections during the launch sequence -- in this case, 3 minutes and 49 seconds after launch -- and usually falls into the ocean and breaks into pieces. SpaceX outfitted these two fairing sections with parachutes so they could be recovered, which apparently will become standard practice.

The second stage (or upper stage) is not recovered. In the past, Musk has said that is not in SpaceX's plans.  Today, however, he said he might give it try: "What's the worst that could happen?  It blows up?  It would anyway."

Halliwell praised SpaceX's engineering expertise that made it all possible.  "The proof is in the pudding and we got it."

Falcon 9 is SpaceX's only rocket at the moment, but it is developing a much more capable rocket, the Falcon Heavy.  The "9" in Falcon 9 refers to its nine engines.  Falcon Heavy will have 27 engines, all firing simultaneously.  Musk joked that they thought about calling it Falcon 27, but the name sounded "too scary."  Falcon Heavy uses three boosters (each with nine engines) strapped together.  For the first launch, two of the three will be reused Falcon 9 first stages, he said.

Falcon Heavy will be launched from LC-39A.  SpaceX's other East Coast launch pad, Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) adjacent to KSC, is still being repaired following last September's explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 communications satellite during fueling for a routine pre-launch static fire test.  The first Falcon Heavy launch will be "risky," Musk conceded, and he does not want to launch it from LC-39A until SLC-40 is repaired just in case something goes awry.   He does not want to be in a position where both of his East Coast launch pads are inoperable.  He also stressed that the company needs to catch up on launches since many have been delayed because of the September explosion and subsequent efforts to diagnose and fix what went wrong.  Getting those customers launched is the first priority and Falcon Heavy is second, he stressed.

Nonetheless, Musk said the current plan is to launch the first Falcon Heavy this summer.  The launch date has been postponed a number of times already, however, and few would be surprised if further delays were encountered.

Musk's long term plan is to send a million people to Mars and for that, he insists, reusable rockets are essential to keep costs down.  He said lightheartedly today that the goal is to get people on Mars "before we're dead and the company is dead." 

Musk said reusability has the potential to reduce costs 100-fold.  How much prices will be reduced is an open question, however.  For the Falcon 9, Musk said that reflown -- or "flight proven" -- boosters would have a "meaningful" discounted price eventually, but for now the company needs to pay off the development costs.   SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last year that customers could save 10 percent by agreeing to use a flight proven Falcon 9 first stage.  The price for the SES-10 launch is not publicly known.

SES, one of the three largest communications satellite operators in the world, is a long-standing SpaceX supporter and was its first commercial customer with the launch of SES-8 in 2013.  Halliwell said that the media and others keep suggesting that SES is taking a "huge chance" by being first but he disagrees.  He said SES works closely with SpaceX and has transparency, a depth of relationship, and access to engineering specifics that "allows us to have confidence."  SES has three more launches on SpaceX Falcon 9s this year and is considering using flight proven boosters on two of them.

Musk said it has taken 15 years to get to this point and today was a "huge day, my mind is blown."   Halliwell added that after SES-8 he predicted "the industry would be shaking in its boots and I think it is shaking now, I really do."

FY2018 Budget May Be Topic A, but FY2017 Still not Settled

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Mar-2017 (Updated: 30-Mar-2017 01:00 PM)

President Trump's release of his FY2018 budget blueprint may be the budget topic of the day, but it is important to remember that FY2017 funding is not yet settled.  NASA, NOAA, DOD and other federal agencies are funded under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on April 28.  Before then, Congress must pass new appropriations to keep the government operating.  Along with proposing his FY2018 budget, Trump requested $33 billion in FY2017 supplemental funding for DOD and the Department of Homeland Security that assumes $18 billion in cuts for non-defense programs, including at NASA and NOAA.

FY2017 is almost half over.  It began on October 1, 2016.   Only one of the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations measures has cleared Congress (Military Construction-VA, which is contained within the first CR that Congress passed in September 2016), but the House and Senate Appropriations Committees have pretty much completed work on the others and a revised FY2017 defense appropriations bill passed the House on March 8.  Trying to make changes at this late date will be quite a challenge.  Politico quoted senior appropriators as calling the FY2017 cuts unlikely.

Nonetheless, the proposal is now before Congress.  The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) submitted a list of where the White House wants to make the reductions.  The American Institute of Physics reports that $3 billion would come from research and development accounts.

Among the proposed cuts are $50 million from NASA's science program and $90 million from NOAA's weather satellite programs.

For NASA, the OMB proposal says the reductions would be distributed across the science program, "including cuts to unused reserves and missions that are cancelled in the 2018 budget,  It is possible missions would be delayed and/or grants reduced."   The President's FY2018 NASA budget request proposes terminating four NASA earth science programs: PACE, CLARREO Pathfinder, Earth-facing instruments on DSCOVR, and OCO-3.

At NOAA, the $90 million in cuts "reflects the planned ramp down of JPSS and GOES weather satellites, and the ramp-up of the PFO program.  This level also delays the EON contingency mission which is not funded in the Congressional marks. This estimate also includes NOAA"s Office of Satellite and Produce Operations."  The budgets for JPSS and GOES do, in fact, begin ramping down in FY2017 so the fact that they continue to be funded at their FY2016 levels in the CR means there is excess money in those accounts.

PFO is the Polar Follow On program -- the third and fourth JPSS polar orbiting weather satellites. The Trump FY2018 budget request already plans to reduce PFO funding.  It says annual savings will be achieved  "by better reflecting the actual risk of a gap in polar satellite coverage."  The amount is not specified.  For FY2017, the PFO request was $383 million, or $393 million if the EON-MW nanosatellite is included. (Sometimes NOAA lists EON-MW separately and sometimes as part of the PFO budget).  EON-MW is the Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave.  As its name implies, it is a tiny satellite that would carry a microwave sounder to ensure that data is available if difficulties arise with the JPSS satellites.   Congress denied the $10 million requested for EON-MW in FY2016.  The same amount was requested for FY2017.  In action so far, the Senate Appropriations Committee denied it while the House Appropriations Committee approved $370 million for PFO and said it included money for EON-MW, but not how much.

The CR expires in four weeks, but the path forward remains murky.  Many appropriators reportedly are hoping to combine the remaining 11 regular appropriations bills into an omnibus bill that would provide "full year" appropriations to each department and agency.   It may be, however, that the CR will simply be extended through the rest of FY2017, keeping agencies at their FY2016 spending levels unless exceptions are made.  Congress has much less control over funding for specific government programs and projects in a CR, but sometimes a CR is the only way to reach agreement.  

As has become typical, there also is talk about a government shutdown, although this time it is the Democrats threatening such action instead of the Republicans.   Many Democrats oppose the increases in defense spending in the FY2017 supplemental and FY2018 budget requests while domestic programs would suffer significant cuts.  Meanwhile, some conservative Republicans object to the overall level of spending for FY2017, which exceeds budget caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act.  They may oppose the FY2017 bills for that reason.  The failure of the House Republican leadership last week to win over the majority of the conservative Freedom Caucus members for a vote to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) could foreshadow troubled times ahead on other issues, including appropriations.

Note:  This article was corrected to indicate that the FY2017 MilCon/VA appropriations bill cleared Congress as part of the first FY2017 CR passed in September.


NASA Continues Journey to Mars Planning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2017 (Updated: 29-Mar-2017 12:15 AM)

The Trump Administration has said very little about its plans for NASA's human spaceflight program other than terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), but NASA continues to shape its architecture for sending people to Mars in the 2030s.  The status of that planning was presented to a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committee today.

Bill Gerstenmaier and Jim Free of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) spoke to NAC's Human Exploration and Operations committee this morning.  Two of Gerstenmaier's slides summarized current plans for launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and associated systems -- including a lunar "gateway" -- from 2018 to 2030 and beyond.  All would culminate in a human mission to orbit Mars in 2033.

Screengrab from NASA presentation to NASA Advisory Council HEO Committee March 28, 2017. 

Screengrab from NASA presentation to NASA Advisory Council HEO Committee March 28, 2017. 

One interesting feature is that the first two Exploration Mission launches, EM-1 and EM-2, are separated on the slide by the launch of the Europa Clipper mission. That is notionally expected in 2022.  The schedule fits with NASA's official plan to launch EM-1 in 2018 and its commitment date to launch EM-2 in 2023, but the agency is working toward an internal deadline of 2021 for the EM-2 launch and Congress is providing additional funding to achieve it.  The slide suggests that NASA does not want to go too far in promising the earlier launch date.   The slide also shows EM-1 as a 25-60 day mission to a Distant Lunar Retrograde Orbit, not a crewed mission, which NASA is currently studying.

Another feature is the lunar "gateway" NASA recently has begun discussing.  Free emphasized today that the gateway would not be another International Space Station (ISS) in lunar orbit.  It would be smaller and human-tended, not permanently inhabited -- a location from which to stage missions to Mars and possibly to the lunar surface.

"Robust international partnerships" and "commercial capabilities" are essential ingredients of the plan, he added.

The humans-to-Mars mission in 2033 could involve a Venus flyby, they said.  It would be an "out and back" mission, but the crew would remain in Mars orbit for a period of time. That differentiates it from the Inspiration Mars mission proposed by Dennis Tito several years ago.  In that scenario, two people would have made a slingshot flyby of Mars, not enter orbit.  Tito's original idea was for a privately funded mission that would launch in 2018, but within a year Tito decided that it would need to be a public-private partnership with NASA shouldering 70 percent of the cost.  The conceptual launch date slipped to 2021 when Mars and the Earth were not as well aligned and the spacecraft would have needed a gravity assist from Venus.  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) was a strong supporter of the idea.  Little has been heard about it recently, but this NASA concept is sure to prompt comparisons.

NASA describes the path to Mars in terms of phases and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) at one time was to signal the end of Phase 1 when experience was gained in cis-lunar space (the Earth-Moon region).  President Trump has proposed terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), however, and NASA is reconfiguring its plans accordingly.   ARM comprises ARCM and the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).  ARRM was to launch first and robotically relocate a boulder from the surface of an asteroid into lunar orbit where ARCM astronauts would visit it to obtain a sample for return to Earth.  The mission had few supporters in Congress and the proposal to terminate it is not likely to generate much opposition.

However, ARM involved the development of high power solar electric propulsion (SEP) and that part of the program is expected to continue.  The "40 kw Power/Prop bus" shown on the slides reflects that effort.  High power SEP is useful for many types of missions in Earth orbit and deep space. Michele Gates, ARM program director, is on the NAC/HEO committee's schedule tomorrow (Wednesday) to give a briefing on in-space power and propulsion.

Concern has been expressed over the low launch rate for SLS for fear that launch teams will lose their proficiency.  A launch rate of, at most, one per year has been projected.  Today, however, Free said that the latest plan is for one crewed SLS/Orion launch per year beginning in 2023 plus one cargo SLS launch per year beginning in 2027, which would increase the cadence to two per year in support of the human spaceflight program. Some SLS supporters believe that additional uses of SLS will materialize, such as for science missions, that could further increase the launch rate, although the cost per launch is not yet known.

The key to all of this is how much support the Trump Administration will provide for such activities.  The President's budget blueprint is for a status quo NASA human spaceflight program.  Funding for SLS/Orion would remain essentially at its current level.  During a signing ceremony last week for the NASA Transition Authorization Act, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, told the President that just as President Eisenhower is remembered for creating the interstate highway system, he (Trump) would be remembered for creating an interplanetary highway system.  Trump's response was "Well that sounds exciting. First we want to fix our highways.  We have to fix our highways."

SpaceX, SES Ready for First Launch of "Flight Proven" Falcon 9

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Mar-2017 (Updated: 27-Mar-2017 10:39 PM)

A successful static fire test of a SpaceX Falcon 9 today sets the stage for the company's first launch of a reused Falcon 9 on Thursday.  The payload is the SES-10 communications satellite.  The Falcon 9's first stage previously launched a cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA in April 2016.  SpaceX refers to it as a "flight proven" rocket.

SES-10 will be launched from Kennedy Space Center's (KSC) Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX leases from NASA.  The company continues to make repairs to Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), which is adjacent to KSC.  SpaceX leases that pad from the Air Force.  It was the site of an on-pad explosion last September during preparations for a static fire test of that Falcon 9, which was destroyed along with its payload, the Amos-6 communications satellite.  During a static fire test, a rocket's engines are fired for a short duration while hold-down clamps keep the rocket attached to the pad.  Such tests are routine.

The launch is scheduled for 6:00 pm ET on Thursday, March 30.  The launch window is open through 8:30 pm ET.  The weather forecast is 70 percent "go."

Falcon 9 static fire test March 27, 2017 at Kennedy Space Center Launch Complex-39A.   Photo credit:  SpaceX tweet.

Advocates of reusable launch vehicles argue that they will significantly lower launch costs compared to expendable launch vehicles where the hardware is not recovered.  That promise was not achieved with the only reusable launch vehicle to reach operational status so far -- NASA's space shuttle.  Refurbishing each shuttle orbiter and their space shuttle main engines (SSMEs) plus the solid rocket boosters required a "standing army" of NASA and contractor employees that kept costs high.  (NASA will use the 16 remaining SSMEs -- or RS-25s -- for the first flights of its new Space Launch System, but will not reuse them.)

All other orbital rockets in use today are expendable.   SpaceX and other companies, however, remain convinced that the economics of reusability will prove out. Blue Origin has conducted several tests of its reusable suborbital rocket New Shepard and Virgin Galactic's suborbital SpaceShipTwo also is reusable.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said last year that customers willing to launch on flight proven Falcon 9 first stages would receive a 10 percent discount, but the price SES paid for this launch is not publicly available.  SES has been a strong supporter of SpaceX for many years and was its first commercial customer.

Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket.  The second stage is expendable.

SpaceX recovers the Falcon 9 first stages by firing their engines to descend back to Earth after they have separated from the second stage (which carries the payload the rest of the way into orbit).  The first stages land either on an autonomous drone ship at sea or on a pad at CCAFS, depending on their trajectory and how much fuel remains.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 27-31, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Mar-2017 (Updated: 26-Mar-2017 12:57 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 27-31, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

Before we get started on what's coming up, in case you missed it, yesterday President Trump used his Weekly Address to talk about NASA.  He signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act into law earlier in the week and the roughly 5 minute video continues the theme of expressing his admiration for NASA while sharing no information on his plans for the agency.  Apollo, Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are featured. JWST is, in fact, the only future program mentioned even though the President says "the future belongs to us."  He is speaking generically at that point, though, not about the space program specifically.  Nothing about the International Station Station even though there's footage from the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.  A space shuttle launch is shown, but nothing about SLS or any other launch vehicles.  The only science other than astrophysics that makes it into the video requires the viewer to be sufficiently in-the-know to recognize the JPL jubilation at Curiosity's successful landing on Mars.  Still, Presidents don't often talk about the space program in their Weekly Addresses or anywhere else, so it's worth a look. This was done the day after the Republican Obamacare repeal effort failed, so perhaps he was looking for some good news to convey.  He says at the end that "if Americans can achieve these things, there is no problem we cannot solve."

Onward.  This coming week is another space policy extravaganza.   Starting with national security space, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will hold a hearing on the nomination of former Rep. Heather Wilson to be Secretary of the Air Force.  Trump announced her nomination back in January, but it has taken this long for all the paperwork to get to the committee. None of the service secretaries are in place right now.  The nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy withdrew because they could not disentangle themselves from their business interests.  Wilson's hearing is Thursday morning.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, a HASC subcommittee will hold a joint hearing with a House Homeland Security subcommittee on "Threats to Space Assets and Implications for Homeland Security," certainly an interesting topic.  Witnesses are the former commandant of the Coast Guard (Adm. Thad Allen), the former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Joseph Nimmich), and the former commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command (Gen. William Shelton).  That's on Wednesday afternoon.  Allen is on the GPS Advisory Board, so that surely will be one of the topics.  GPS -- where would we all be without it?

On the civil space side, this is Space Science Week at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  All five of the standing committees that deal with space meet individually and jointly Tuesday-Thursday and there is a public lecture on Wednesday evening.   At the public lecture, JPL's Kevin Hand will talk about the Search for Life in Oceans Beyond Earth.  The lecture and the other Space Science Week events will take place at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue (not at the Keck Center on 5th Street).

Space law is on the docket this week, too. The Legal Subcommittee of the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space begins its annual two-week meeting in Vienna, Austria.  The first day features a space law symposium sponsored by the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) and the European Centre for Space Law (ECSL).  Closer to home, Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) is holding an afternoon symposium on Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.   Henry Hetrzfeld (GWU), Steve Mirmina (NASA), Pamela Meredith (American Univ.), Ray Bender (independent arbitrator and mediator), Courtney Bailey (NASA) and Pete Hays (DOD PDSA staff) are the speakers.  SAIS doesn't often weigh in on space law or space policy issues.  Space law does seem to be in vogue these days, spurred by the anniversary and the innovative ideas commercial companies are espousing for space exploration and utilization and associated legal issues.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meets, more briefly than usual, on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.  Two of its committees meet earlier in the week, including Human Exploration and Operations (HEO).  NAC advises the NASA Administrator and a new Administrator has not yet been nominated.  Robert Lightfoot is Acting Administrator.  Gen. Lester Lyles (USAF, Ret.) is the new Chair of NAC, succeeding Ken Bowersox, who served as Acting Chair after Steve Squyres stepped down last April.  Bowersox remains on NAC and resumes his position as chair of the HEO committee.  Lyles was an ex officio member of NAC for many years because he chaired the National Academies Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB).  He completed his two terms as ASEB chair last year and now will continue advising NASA in this new capacity.  Public sessions of the NAC meetings are useful for catching up on NASA programs and the issues NASA managers are facing.  Anyone can listen in by telecon and watch via WebEx.  

We'll stop there because this is getting so long, but there are MANY other really interesting meetings on tap this week.

All the 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.  In particular we are awaiting word on when the OA-7 cargo mission to the International Space Station will launch.  The launch, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, has been delayed three times due to technical problems with one thing or another.  When a new launch date is announced, we'll post it.

Monday, March 27

Monday, March 27 - Friday, April 7

Tuesday, March 28

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 28-29

Tuesday-Thursday, March 28-30

Wednesday, March 29

Wednesday-Friday, March 29-31

Thursday, March 30

Thursday-Friday, March 30-31

Trump Signs NASA Bill, Pence Says Space Council Imminent

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Mar-2017 (Updated: 21-Mar-2017 09:10 PM)

President Donald Trump signed the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act into law today.  During an Oval Office signing ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence said that Trump will soon reactivate a White House National Space Council and has asked him to lead it.

The signing ceremony included about a dozen members of Congress who worked on the bill (S. 442) as well as NASA officials, including Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and astronauts. Among the members were Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representatives John Culberson (R-TX), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Lamar Smith (R-TX), Brian Babin (R-TX), Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Bill Posey (R-FL), Steven Palazzo (R-MS), and Mo Brooks (R-AL).

President Donald Trump signs the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act into law during an Oval Office ceremony, March 21, 2017.  Snip from White House video posted on NASA YouTube channel.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, chief of the astronaut office, presented the President with an astronaut flight jacket.

In his formal statement, Trump summarized key provisions of the legislation, particularly praising the jobs it will create and its reaffirmation of support for NASA's "core missions" -- "human space exploration, space science, and technology."  He did not mention earth science.  Later he said the United States would remain a leader in aviation.

He invited others to speak after he signed it and Culberson remarked that just as President Eisenhower is remembered as the President who created the interstate highway system, he (Trump) would be remembered as creating the interplanetary highway system. 

Trump replied:  "Well that sounds exciting.  First we want to fix our highways. We have to fix our highways."

That is reminiscent of what he said during the campaign. When asked about his views on space, he said he loves what NASA represents, but "we need to fix the potholes first."

Thus, his comments today did not shed much light on what he plans to do with NASA.  His budget blueprint suggests the status quo, at least for now.  He may be waiting for input from a White House National Space Council that Vice President Pence today said would be established soon.

At the end of the ceremony, Pence said that "in very short order the President will be taking action to relaunch the National Space Council.  He's asked me to chair that as Vice Presidents have done in the past and we're going to be bringing together the best and the brightest in NASA and also in the private sector.  We have elected a builder for President and as he said America once again needs to start building and leading to the stars."

This is the first NASA authorization bill since 2010.  It sets policy and recommends funding levels for FY2017, which is already underway.  It does not provide any funding to NASA, however; only appropriations bills do that.  Congress is still considering the FY2017 appropriations bills.  NASA and other government agencies are funded right now by a Continuing Resolution basically at their FY2016 levels until April 28.  Congress must pass some other appropriations measure(s) by then to keep the government operating.

A National Aeronautics and Space Council was created in the 1958 NASA Act, but President Richard Nixon abolished it in 1973.  Congress reestablished a National Space Council (without the aeronautics component) in the FY1989 NASA Authorization Act and President George H.W. Bush implemented it by Executive Order in 1989.  It was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle.  The National Space Council (usually abbreviated NSpC to distinguish its initials from the National Security Council) still exists in law, but has not been funded or staffed since the end of that Administration.   Space policy has been overseen in the White House by the National Security Council (national security) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (civil and commercial) since then.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 19-24, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Mar-2017 (Updated: 19-Mar-2017 03:41 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 19-24, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's another one of those super-busy weeks, especially Wednesday.  Lots of action is in store inside Washington, outside Washington, and in Earth orbit.

Two are happening today (Sunday).  First is a Town Hall meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LSPC) near Houston that is discussing the Science Definition Team report on a Europa lander, a topic expected to be of congressional interest during debate on the FY2018 budget request. President Trump's budget blueprint specifically says it does NOT fund the lander, only the orbiter/flyby Europa Clipper. Second is the return to Earth of SpaceX's CRS-10 Dragon spacecraft.  It took about 5,500 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) last month and is returning 5,400 pounds of results from scientific experiments and other items needed back on Earth.  Dragon is the only one of the four cargo spacecraft that service ISS that was designed to survive reentry (since SpaceX designed it from the beginning to support crews).

Dragon's return is just one part of a busy time on the ISS.  Another cargo mission, Orbital ATK's OA-7, is scheduled for launch on either Thursday or Friday (the exact date is TBD depending on availability of the Eastern Test Range from which the launch will take place aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V).  At the same time, astronauts on the U.S. segment of the ISS are gearing up for a series of three spacewalks.  The first is on Friday.  NASA will hold a news conference on Wednesday at Johnson Space Center to explain what they will be doing.  NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet will all take part in the spacewalks.  The other two are on April 2 and April 7.

The Europa lander Town Hall mentioned above is just the start of the week-long LPSC conference at The Woodlands, just outside Houston.  LPSC is the premier conference where planetary scientists gather to present the results of their research and talk about upcoming missions.  Unfortunately, it looks like there are no webcasts, so one must be there in person to hear about all the new findings and discoveries.  [There is a notice on the conference's website warning that no live streaming of presentations is permitted.]  NASA headquarters representatives will hold their own Town Hall meeting on Monday and NASA's Venus Exploration Analysis Group's (VEXAG's) Town Hall is on Thursday.

Back in Washington, brevity requires picking just two events to highlight, both among those taking place on Wednesday.  First, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI) will hold a day-long symposium on "Space Security:  Issues for the New Administration."  It has a terrific lineup of speakers from CSIS, PSSI, the U.S. military, Congress, academia (U.S. and Japan), the Japanese and French governments, the European Space Agency, industry, non-profits and FFRDCs. The four main topics are space crisis dynamics, cooperation in space and missile defense, future of space launch, and space situational awareness and space traffic management.   Luckily, this event WILL be livestreamed so people everywhere can benefit. 

Second, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis gets his first chance in his new position to publicly brief the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on the state of U.S. military readiness and DOD's budget requirements.   Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC) will also testify.  Not sure how much, if any, of the discussion will be about space activities, but it's a great way to get the lay of the land from their perspectives. The committee typically webcasts its hearings on its website.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday, March 19

Monday, March 20

Monday-Friday, March 20-24

Tuesday, March 21

Wednesday, March 22

Thursday, March 23

  • VEXAG Town Hall meeting at LPSC, The Woodlands, TX, "lunchtime"
  • Two OA-7 Pre-Launch Briefings, Kennedy Space Center, FL, 1:00 pm ET (What's on Board) and 4:00 pm ET (Mission Status), broadcast on NASA TV (could take place a day earlier if the launch date moves up a day)
  • [The OA-7 launch could take place today, but is currently scheduled for tomorrow]

Friday, March 24

  • ISS Spacewalk (1st of 3, Kimbrough and Pesquet), Earth orbit, 7:00 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins 6:30 am ET)
  • Launch of Orbital ATK OA-7 Cargo Mission to ISS, Cape Canaveral, FL, 9:00 pm ET (launch could move forward one day to March 23)  NASA TV launch coverage begins 8:00 pm ET, post-launch coverage begins at 10:30 pm ET Posts Free Fact Sheets on NASA and NOAA FY2018 Budget Requests

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2017 (Updated: 18-Mar-2017 05:08 PM) has posted new fact sheets on the FY2018 budget requests for NASA and for NOAA's satellite programs.   They can be downloaded for free from the left menu of our home page under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports."  The fact sheets are updated as needed as the requests work their way through Congress.

In case you missed it, we also have a new fact sheet that tracks major space-related legislation in the 115th Congress.

The current versions of all three fact sheets are as follows:

JPSS and GOES Fare OK in Trump Budget Request, But Polar Follow On Uncertain

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Mar-2017 (Updated: 16-Mar-2017 02:24 PM)

The Trump Administration's FY2018 budget request for NOAA maintains support for the two major weather satellite programs, JPSS and GOES, but expects savings from the Polar Follow On program according to a copy of the document posted by the Washington Post.  The "budget blueprint" will be officially released in a few hours.  It is an overview of what the President is proposing.  The detailed request is not expected to be sent to Congress for several weeks.

The information provided in the blueprint is not sufficient to ascertain exactly what the level of funding is for NOAA's satellite programs.   The text says only that the JPSS and GOES programs are to remain on schedule.  In NOAA's formulation, the JPSS program pays only for the first two satellites, JPSS-1 and JPSS-2.  The next two (JPSS-3 and -4) are funded in the Polar Follow On (PFO) program.  The budget blueprint says that "annual savings" will be achieved from PFO "by better reflecting the actual risk of a gap in polar satellite coverage" and that additional opportunities will be provided to expand use of commercially provided data to improve weather models.  The latter probably is a reference to the commercial weather data pilot program through which NOAA plans to acquire GPS radio occultation data from commercial sources.  Such data improves forecasts from polar orbiting weather satellites.

No dollar amounts were specified for any of the NOAA satellite programs.

The blueprint uploaded by the Washington Post spells out budget requests for other agencies, including NASA, which would receive $19.1 billion, including $1.8 billion for earth science research.  [UPDATE, March 16, 7:20 am ET:  The document is now posted on the White House Office of Management and Budget website.]

For more information on JPSS, GOES, PFO and the commercial weather data pilot program, see's fact sheet on NOAA's FY2017 budget request for satellites.

Trump Budget Request Kills ARM, Supports SLS/Orion and Public Private Partnerships

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Mar-2017 (Updated: 16-Mar-2017 07:22 AM)
The Trump Administration's FY2018 budget blueprint proposes $19.1 billion for NASA, less than a one percent cut according to a copy of the document posted by the Washington Post.   It is good news considering the draconian cuts proposed for many other agencies.  President Obama's Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) would be cancelled and NASA's Office of Education would be eliminated under the proposal, but other NASA programs survived relatively unscathed.  The earth science program is cut, but not as deeply as many feared.

The blueprint is due to be officially released in a few hours, but the Washington Post was able to upload a copy early.  [UPDATE, March 16, 7:20 am ET:  The document is now posted on the Office of Management and Budget website.]

The key elements of the NASA portion are as follows:

  • "Supports and expands public-private partnerships as the foundation of future U.S. civilian space efforts."
  • "Paves the way for eventual over-land commercial supersonic flights and safer, more efficient air travel" providing $624 million for aeronautics.
  • Provides $1.9 billion for robotic planetary exploration, including Europa Clipper and Mars 2020.  No funding for Europa lander
  • Provides $3.7 billion for the Space Launch System/Orion/exploration ground systems program.
  • Cancels the Asteroid Redirect Mission.
  • Provides $1.8 billion for earth science, $102 million less than the annualized level in the FY2017 Continuing Resolution, terminating four missions:  PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR earth-viewing instruments, and CLARREO Pathfinder.  Reduces funds for Earth science research grants.
  • Eliminates NASA's Office of Education.
  • Restructures the RESTORE-L satellite servicing mission to reduce cost and "better position it to support a nascent commercial satellite servicing industry."
  • Strengthens NASA's cybersecurity capabilities.

The budget blueprint is an outline of the President's budgetary plans.  The detailed budget request is not expected to be submitted to Congress for several weeks.

The President proposes a budget, but under the Constitution, only Congress decides how much money the country will spend and on what.  The request is the opening of a lengthy debate, and although NASA fared quite well compared to many other non-defense agencies, the lack of support for a Europa lander -- a favorite of Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee that funds NASA -- and elimination of the congressionally popular Office of Education are surely to encounter resistance.  While the cuts to Earth science are not insignificant, the level of support is so much better than many expected, it may engender less outcry than anticipated.

The full blueprint as uploaded by the Washington Post describes the President's proposal for other government agencies as well, including NOAA's satellite programs. It "maintains" development of JPSS-1 and JPSS-2 and GOES "to remain on schedule," but "achieves annual savings" from the Polar Follow-on Program (JPSS-3 and -4).

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »

Subscribe to Email Updates:

Enter your email address: