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Smith, Babin Question NASA Assertion that Scientists Now Support ARM

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Nov-2016 (Updated: 29-Nov-2016 11:49 PM)

The chairmen of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and its Space Subcommittee want NASA to provide documentation to underpin recent agency statements implying that its scientific advisors now support the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  The controversial Obama Administration project has received little support, including from the scientists who study asteroids. A November NASA update to an ARM website suggests they have changed their minds, however.

In 2010, President Obama canceled the Bush Administration's Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon and someday send them to Mars.  He stated that we had already been to the Moon's surface and there was no need to go back.  Instead, he directed NASA to focus on sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 as a step towards putting humans in orbit around Mars in the 2030s.  Over time, that evolved into ARM, where a robotic spacecraft will be sent to an asteroid, pluck a boulder from its surface, and move the boulder to lunar orbit.  Once there, astronauts will visit it and collect a sample for return to Earth.

ARM has two components:  the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) -- the robotic spacecraft that will collect and relocate the boulder, and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) -- sending astronauts to obtain a sample.  NASA initially estimated the cost of ARRM at $1.25 billion.  No cost estimate has been provided for ARCM.  NASA argues that ARRM and ARCM will demonstrate technologies needed to achieve the long term goal of sending humans to Mars such as high power solar electric propulsion (SEP) and cites other potential benefits such as ARRM demonstrating a "gravity tractor" technique to change an asteroid's trajectory.

Scientists who study asteroids and other small bodies in the solar system provide input to NASA through the agency's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG).  They were not consulted prior to announcement of the mission by the White House.  Later, NASA officials responsible for executing ARM engaged with SBAG to explain the mission and obtain input on how best to design it to further scientific goals as well as meet human spaceflight objectives.

On November 16, NASA posted an update to one of its ARM websites announcing release of a report from an SBAG Special Action Team (SAT) that NASA said "confirms scientific benefits" of the mission. (The posting looks like a press release, but was not formally issued as a NASA news release.)   The posting said the SAT compared ARM requirements to internationally developed Strategic Knowledge Gaps (SKGs) for human missions into deep space and science objectives identified in the National Academies' most recent Decadal Survey for planetary science. The SAT concluded that ARM could close 18 small body SKGs and address 15 questions that support specific objectives in the Decadal Survey, although some of that is "contingent upon additional instruments or payloads on the robotic segment of ARM or additional crew time than is currently baselined for the crew segment of ARM."  The posting indisputably conveys the impression that SBAG, or at least the members of the SAT are warming up to ARM after years of skepticism.

Today, House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) called on NASA to provide the committee with documents to help it "better understand the genesis and intent" of the SAT report and the "press release."

In a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Smith and Babin requested all documents associated with the SAT report and the press release that underpin the implication that the agency's scientific advisors now support ARM.

"Contrary to the assertions made in the press release, numerous advisory bodies have questioned the merits of the President's ARM mission.  The NASA Advisory Council, the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG), and the National Research Council have all raised concerns with the mission," Smith and Babin said.  They argue that as the Trump Administration takes office "it would benefit from clear guidance from both NASA and its advisory bodies."  The 6-page letter (plus an attachment) details comments from those advisory groups since 2013 expressing reservations about the mission.

ARM passed its Key Decision Point B (KDP-B) review this summer, allowing it to enter the preliminary design and technology completion phase.  ARM Program Director Michele Gates revealed at the time that the cost for ARRM had grown from $1.25 billion to $1.4 billion, excluding launch and operations costs.  She said NASA uses $500 million as a placeholder for the launch cost, which would raise the total to $1.9 billion without operations.  That is the estimate only at this point in the program.  NASA does not confirm a mission's schedule or cost until it passes the next milestone, KDP-C.

One concern is that the costs for ARRM and ARCM will grow to such an extent that they will interfere with other science or human exploration missions.  While there is strong support for the development of high power solar electric propulsion, which has many applications, critics argue that it can be developed even if ARM is terminated.  Many scientists contend that if the goal is to understand asteroids, collecting samples for return to Earth does not require astronauts as demonstrated by Japanese and NASA robotic missions that are already doing that.  Human spaceflight advocates worry that the roughly $2 billion for ARRM could be better spent on other aspects of advancing NASA's Journey to Mars, such as building habitats.

For those and other reasons, ARM has garnered little support either in Congress or the space community.

Still, Congress has not prohibited NASA from spending money on it, at least as of now. The House Appropriations Committee's FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NASA, would prohibit NASA from spending any money for planning robotic or crewed missions to asteroids, but the bill has not passed the House yet.  Its Senate counterpart is silent with regard to ARM.  A draft version of a FY2017 NASA authorization bill also does not require that ARM be terminated.  Instead, NASA would have to submit an analysis of alternatives on how to demonstrate technologies needed for human missions to Mars.


Senate Floor Action on New NASA Authorization Act Could be Imminent

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Nov-2016 (Updated: 29-Nov-2016 07:25 PM)

Senate and House negotiators reportedly are close to agreement on a final version of a FY2017 NASA authorization act.   Senate floor action on a draft compromise bill could come as early as tomorrow.

NASA's most recent authorization law was enacted in 2010 -- the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  It provided funding recommendations only through FY2013, but the policy provisions remain in force.  NASA's authorization committees in the House and Senate have been working on a new bill for several years to update policy and provide authorization direction, but without success.  Last year the House passed a FY2015 NASA authorization bill, H.R. 810,(which was very similar to a bill in passed for FY2014), but the Senate did not take it up.  A House bill for FY2016-2017 (H.R. 2039) never reached the floor after clearing the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on a party line vote.  Significant cuts to NASA's earth science program were a major partisan sticking point.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved a FY2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act (S. 3346) in September.  It avoided the issue of NASA's earth science activities by not mentioning them.  It also recommended authorization funding levels only for FY2017, which is already underway, using a combination of figures approved separately by the House and Senate appropriations committees.

A draft of a revised version of the bill reportedly reflecting compromise with the House is now circulating and rumors are that the Senate may take it up as early as tomorrow. obtained a copy of the new draft.  A quick glance suggests that it is similar to what cleared the Senate committee, while incorporating elements of H.R, 810 and H.R. 2039 plus new provisions.  These are a few highlights of the 114-page draft.  

  • Authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA for FY2017, the same total as approved by the House Appropriations Committee, but allocated differently;
  • Requires a study of alternatives to the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) for demonstrating the technologies needed to send humans to Mars, but does not terminate the program;
  • Supports the Space Launch System, Orion, the International Space Station (ISS), and a stepping-stone approach -- including intermediate destinations such as the surface of the Moon, cis-lunar space, near-Earth asteroids, Lagrangian points and Martian moons -- to human journeys to Mars, in cooperation with international, commercial and academic partners where practical, including the "peaceful settlement of a location in space or on another celestial body and a thriving space economy in the 21st century";
  • Prohibits acquisition of non-U.S. (e.g. Russian) crew transportation services to the International Space Station (ISS) unless there are no U.S. alternatives and the non-U.S. provider is a "qualified foreign entity";
  • Establishes as policy that the United States should maintain an uninterrupted capability for human space flight in and beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) once such a capability is demonstrated;
  • Requires an independent study of a potential 2021 human flyby of Mars, a particular interest of House SS&T chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX);
  • Supports utilization of ISS through at least 2024 (already codified in law in the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act) with an evaluation of continuing it at least through 2028;
  • Requires a plan to transition in a step-wise manner from the current ISS regime that relies on NASA sponsorship to one where NASA is one of many customers;
  • Requires a plan to meet NASA's projected communications and navigation needs for LEO and deep-space missions for the next 20 years;
  • Allows NASA to provide third-party indemnification for commercial service providers for NASA launches and reentries that are "unusually hazardous or nuclear in nature" under certain conditions;
  • Allows NASA to provide for medical monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment of former U.S. government astronauts or payload specialists for conditions associated with their spaceflights, but none are required to participate;
  • Directs NASA to contract with the National Academies for one study on astrobiology as it relates to the search for life in the solar system and extrasolar planetary systems and another assessing NASA's robotic Mars exploration program;
  • Directs NASA to report to Congress on how public private partnerships could be used to advance astrobiology as well as efforts to detect, track and catalog Near-Earth Objects (NEOs);
  • Prohibits NASA from terminating science operations of SOFIA;
  • Requires a study from NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) analyzing the requirements for radioisotope power system material needed for robotic planetary missions; and
  • Requires an assessment from OSTP on how to protect the Apollo landing sites.

The new draft bill does not call for terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission, but, incidentally, House SS&T Chairman Smith and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chairs its space subcommittee, sent a letter to NASA today requesting all documents associated with a report and press release the agency issued two weeks ago concluding that the project now has the support of the scientific advisory community.

As in the Senate committee-approved bill, NASA's earth science activities are not specifically mentioned.

The draft bill contains many "sense of Congress" statements and '"findings" that are not legally binding, but express congressional views.  Among them are support for several specific space science missions (James Webb Space Telescope, Wide-field Infrared Space Telescope, a mission to Europa, and Mars 2020), satellite servicing as a "vital capability," small satellite missions, and a robust aeronautics research program.



NASA Gets First "Landing Party" Member -- Chris Shank

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Nov-2016 (Updated: 29-Nov-2016 02:04 PM)

The Trump transition team named the first member of its "landing party" for NASA today -- Chris Shank. Shank was part of the leadership team at NASA while Mike Griffin was Administrator and is currently on the staff of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee.   Mark Albrecht, who had been rumored as a candidate for the NASA landing party, instead has been assigned to DOD's transition team.

Transition teams or "landing parties" typically are named for each federal department and agency by incoming presidential administrations to do an initial review of an agency's portfolio and identify pressing issues that the new administration will have to address quickly. 

Shank is an experienced space policy professional.  From 2001-2005, he served on what was then the House Science Committee staff specializing in human spaceflight and Earth science issues.  After joining NASA as a special assistant to Griffin in 2005, he was appointed NASA's chief of strategic communications in 2008.  He left NASA in January 2009 at the end of the Bush Administration and worked first at the Applied Physics Lab and later Honeywell Aerospace.  He returned to Capitol Hill in 2011 as Deputy Chief of Staff to Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who is now chairman of House SS&T, and in 2013 was appointed policy and coalitions director for the full committee.

Chris Shank.  Photo Credit:  NASA/Bill Ingalls

He has a master's degree in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado and a bachelor's in mathematics from the University of Notre Dame.  Before his first stint on the committee, he served in the Air Force for 11 years, working at the Pentagon, National Reconnaissance Office and Air Force Space Command.

Landing teams usually have several  members, so additional appointments are expected.  Transition teams exist only until the inauguration, but it is not uncommon for many of their members to join the respective agency's staff thereafter.

Albrecht is another veteran member of the space policy community.  He was Executive Director of the White House National Space Council during the George H.W. Bush Administration and later was President of Lockheed Martin's International Launch Services (ILS), which at the time (1999-2006) marketed launch services on Lockheed Martin's Atlas and Russia's Proton rockets.  He currently is Chairman of the Board of U.S. Space LLC.  Prior to his tenure in the George H.W. Bush White House, he was a legislative assistant for national security affairs for then-Senator Pete Wilson (R-CA).  He has bachelor's and master's degrees from UCLA and a doctorate in public policy analysis from the Rand Graduate School.  Albrecht wrote a book, Falling Back to Earth, about his experiences on the National Space Council and at ILS, including relationships with Russia.

Mark Albrecht.  Photo Credit:  U.S. Space, LLC

He was appointed to the DOD transition team, which already has quite a few members.  Albrecht appears to be the only one so far with a space background, although another member, Trae Stephens, is a principal at Founders Fund which has investments in SpaceX according to Space News.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 28-December 2, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Nov-2016 (Updated: 27-Nov-2016 03:49 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of November 28 - December 2, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The House and Senate return to work this week.  They must pass an appropriations measure by December 9 to keep the government operating and there is a strong desire to complete action on the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), but apart from that, it appears that the plan is to wait until next year to deal with most issues.   Appropriations likely will be handled by extending the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) through March 31 and agreement on the NDAA seemed close just before Thanksgiving.  The 114th Congress could adjourn "sine die"  ("without a day" for recovening, meaning it is the end of the session) as soon as those are passed.  A slim chance remains for getting the NASA Transition Authorization Act passed, but time is running out.

The Presidential election is over -- sort of.  Officially it is not final until after the Electoral College votes on December 19 and Congress certifies that vote on January 6, 2017 (CRS has a very useful report about the Electoral College for those who are interested).  At the moment, Donald Trump is expected to win the Electoral College decisively with at least 290 votes (270 are needed to win) versus 232 for Hillary Clinton.  Clinton has decisively won the popular vote by more than 2 million (64,637,503 for Clinton versus 62,409,389 for Trump according to Cook Political Report ).  Under the Constitution, it is the Electoral College vote that determines the winner.  The race in Michigan still has not been called for either candidate, but its 16 electoral votes are not enough to change the outcome.

Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein has demanded a recount in Wisconsin and plans to ask for recounts in Pennsylvania and Michigan.  Stein says she is doing it to ensure the "integrity" of the election process and it "is not intended to help Hillary Clinton."  Indeed, few (if any) expect the outcome of the election to change, including Clinton herself.  Her spokesman made that clear, saying they are "fully aware" that the vote margin in the closest of the states (Michigan) is much larger than any margin ever overcome in a recount.  Any recounts must be completed before the Electoral College meets.

The Trump transition team continues its work, announcing a number of White House appointments and three Cabinet nominees (Attorney General, Secretary of Education and Ambassador to the U.N.).   While there are strong rumors about who will be nominated for Secretary of Defense (national security space programs) and Secretary of Commerce (NOAA satellite programs), Trump has not made any official pronouncements.  Nothing has been said about NASA so far. 

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meets in public session on Wednesday in Palmdale, CA, near NASA's Armstrong Flight Research Facility (available by WebEx/telecon). The agenda has not been posted yet, so there is no way to know what they plan to discuss, but any news about a "landing team" being assigned to NASA and the impact of operating under a FY2017 CR for 6 months instead of just 3 months are possible topics.  This is the last NAC meeting under the Obama Administration and, presumably, Charlie Bolden's tenure as Administrator.  The NASA Administrator appoints the members of NAC, so its composition could change before the next meeting.

The Ministerial Council of the European Space Agency (ESA) will meet in Switzerland on December 1-2.  The ministers responsible for space activities in each of ESA's 22 member countries get together every 2-3 years to make policy and funding decisions.  ESA says this meeting will "further the vision of a United Space in Europe in the era of Space 4.0."   A press conference is scheduled for the end of the meeting on December 2 at approximately 13:00 CET (7:00 am ET).  One of the topics they will consider is whether to provide an increase of approximately 400 million Euros  to complete the ESA-Roscosmos ExoMars program. The first two ExoMars spacecraft -- the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) and Schiaparelli lander -- were launched together in March and arrived at Mars last month.  TGO successfully entered orbit, but Schiaparelli crashed.  Schiaparelli was a technology demonstrator for a Russian lander and ESA rover scheduled for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018).  Costs for the 2020 mission have grown, necessitating a decision by the Council on whether to proceed.   ESA's portion of the total program cost was estimated in 2008 at 1.3 billion Euros.  ExoMars originally was an ESA-NASA program, but the Obama Administration declined to fund the U.S. portion, so ESA turned to Russia instead.

Mars is but one planet in our beautiful solar system.  NASA's Venus Exploration Analysis Group (VEXAG) meets Tuesday-Thursday at NASA Headquarters to discuss future exploration of that planet.  The meeting will be available remotely via WebEx and telecon.

And then there's Earth itself!  The American Astronautical Society and the American Meteorological Society will hold an event to highlight Space-Based Environmental Intelligence on Thursday evening at the Naval Heritage Center in Washington, DC.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is the speaker.  He chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and crafted provisions in law to create commercial weather data pilot programs at NOAA and DOD (NOAA's is underway; the DOD provision is in the FY2017 NDAA).

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

Tuesday-Thursday, November 29-December 1

  • VEXAG, NASA HQ, Washington, DC

Wednesday, November 30

Thursday, December 1

Thursday-Friday, December 1-2


Bad IMU Data Doomed ESA's Schiaparelli Lander

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Nov-2016 (Updated: 23-Nov-2016 04:33 PM)

The European Space Agency (ESA) said today that erroneous data from an Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) doomed its Schiaparelli Mars lander last month.  The bad data convinced onboard systems that the spacecraft had already landed when it actually was still 3.7 kilometers (km) above the surface.  The spacecraft made a free fall the rest of way, hitting the surface at a high velocity.  Schiaparelli is part of ESA's ExoMars program and traveled to Mars with the Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) spacecraft, which successfully entered orbit.

TGO and Schiaparelli were launched together in March. TGO will study trace gases, like methane, in the Martian atmosphere that may reveal whether life ever existed there. Schiaparelli and TGO are the first two of four spacecraft that comprise ESA's ExoMars program, which it is conducting cooperatively with Russia's Roscosmos state space corporation.  Initially ExoMars was an ESA-NASA program, but the Obama Administration declined to fund NASA's portion and ESA turned to Russia instead. 

The other two spacecraft -- a Russian lander and an ESA rover -- are scheduled for launch in 2020 (delayed from 2018). Schiaparelli was designed to test entry, descent and landing (EDL) technologies in preparation for the lander/rover mission.

TGO and Schiaparelli separated from each other on October 16, three days before Mars arrival. TGO went on to successfully achieve orbit on October 19 while Schiaparelli aimed for the surface.  Contact was lost during descent.  Using imagery from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) spacecraft, the crash site was located just two days later and high resolution images were available a week after that.  The imagery shows the parachute, front and back sections of the heatshield, and scattered debris from the lander itself.

Using data Schiaparelli transmitted to TGO as well as from an Earth-based Indian radio telescope that was tracking it, ESA said today that atmospheric entry and braking occurred as expected.  The parachute deployed as planned at an altitude of 12 km and the heatshield was jettisoned at 7.8 km. 

As Schiaparelli descended under the parachute, something went wrong. The "radar Doppler altimeter functioned correctly and the measurements were included in the guidance, navigation and control system.  However, saturation -- maximum measurement -- of the Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU) had occurred shortly after the parachute deployment. The IMU measures the rotation rate of the vehicle. Its output was generally as predicted except for this event, which persisted for about one second -- longer than would be expected.  When merged into the navigation system, the erroneous information generated an altitude estimate that was negative -- that is, below ground level."

Consequently, the parachute released. the landing thrusters fired briefly and on-ground systems were activated "as if Schiaparelli had already landed.  In reality, the vehicle was still at an altitude of 3.7 km."   ESA earlier estimated that Schiaparelli was traveling at more than 300 km/hour when it hit the surface and probably exploded since its fuel tanks were still fairly full.

David Parker, ESA's Director of Human Spaceflight and Robotic Exploration, emphasized that this is a preliminary conclusion.  An external independent review board is currently  being established "as requested by ESA's Director General, under the chairmanship of ESA's Inspector General,"' Parker continued.  Its report is expected in early 2017.

ESA officials stress that the whole point of launching Schiaparelli was to test EDL technologies and they are pleased that the early phases went as planned even if the ending did not.

Only the United States has successfully landed spacecraft on Mars.  Seven of eight attempts since 1976 have succeeded:  Viking 1, Viking 2, Mars Pathfinder + Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, Phoenix and Curiosity.  Only the 1999 Mars Polar Lander (MPL) failed.  One of the four landers sent to Mars by the Soviet Union in the 1970s sent back data after landing, but for less than 20 seconds so is not considered a success.  The United Kingdom sent the Beagle 2 lander to Mars along with ESA's Mars Express in 2003, but it landed in a semi-deployed manner and was unable to communicate. 

Interestingly, MPL failed for somewhat similar reasons as Schiaparelli. The MPL failure review board concluded that vibrations in MPL's landing legs when they were deployed as it approached the surface were incorrectly interpreted by onboard software as an indication that the spacecraft had landed.  In fact, it was still about 40 meters above the surface and could not survive the impact.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 21-25, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2016 (Updated: 20-Nov-2016 02:50 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of November 21-25, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are not in session this week.

During the Week

The United States celebrates Thanksgiving on Thursday.  Across the nation, people are focused on shopping, cooking and traveling to celebrate with friends and family more than attending meetings on space policy or anything else.  We do not have a single space policy event on our list for this week in the United States and only one that will be held abroad (see below).

This is, indeed, a good time to take a breath after a fractious election season.  Melanie Kirkpatrick, acting editorial features writer for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), published a commentary on Thursday noting that "healing" is the watchword of post-election America.  Author of "Thanksgiving: The Holiday at the Heart of the American Experience," she shared the story of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday at a time of national strife and urged that this year it serve as "a moment to focus on our blessings as Americans, on what unites us, not on what divides us."  

The tale of the First Thanksgiving with Pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621 is fairly well known, but how the holiday evolved over the centuries less so.  Presidents had occasionally designated national days of thanks since the time of George Washington, but the holiday did not achieve permanence at the national level until it was proclaimed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863.  Yes, 1863, in the middle of the Civil  War and just months after the horrific Battle of Gettysburg with its approximately 50,000 casualties (killed, wounded or missing).  Poet, novelist and magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale (a very interesting woman) had made it her mission to establish a single national day of Thanksgiving.  Over three decades, she convinced many states to declare a day of thanks, but they were on various dates.  Her goal was a single national day every year.   Lincoln agreed as part of an effort to unite Americans on both sides of the conflict by reminding them of all that is good about our country even in such a painful time.  He issued a Proclamation on October 3, 1863 designating the last Thursday of November (the date originally chosen by George Washington) as a day of thanksgiving.  Kirkpatrick's commentary is behind the WSJ paywall unfortunately, but her bottom line is "Lincoln's Thanksgiving proclamation was profoundly hopeful, reminding the American people of the nation's capacity for renewal.  It's a message that resonates today."

On that note, wishes everyone a very Happy Thanksgiving.

Meanwhile, there is one space policy-related conference that we know about this week -- in Dubai.  Sponsored by the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), this "High Level Forum" focuses on space as an economic driver for socio-economic sustainable development.  Among the co-sponsors are the Secure World Foundation, Sierra Nevada Corporation's Space Systems Division and the International Committee on Global Navigation Systems.   It is part of the lead-up to UNOOSA's UNISPACE+50 conference that will take place in 2018, the 50th anniversary of the first UNISPACE conference (two others were held in 1982 and 1999).   The website does not indicate if any of this week's conference will be webcast.

Three Up, Two Down -- Busy Time for Space Stations - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Nov-2016 (Updated: 20-Nov-2016 03:11 PM)

Hours apart, three new crew members headed to the International Space Station (ISS) from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan while two Chinese astronauts landed in Inner Mongolia after a month aboard China's Tiangong-2.

The ISS crew, comprised of NASA's Peggy Whitson, the European Space Agency's (ESA's) Thomas Pesquet, and Roscosmos's Oleg Novitsky launched at 3:20 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) November 17, which was 2:20 am November 18 local time at the launch site, aboard the Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft.  They will dock with ISS on Saturday at 5:00 pm EST, joining three crew members already aboard -- NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos's Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko.  [UPDATE: The Soyuz MS-03 crew docked with ISS on November 19 as scheduled, but two minutes early at 4:58 pm ET.]

ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada and 11 European countries working through ESA.  The 400 metric ton (MT) multi-modular facility has been permanently occupied by international crews rotating on approximately 4-6 month shifts for 16 years.  The various groups of crew members are referred to as "expeditions" and this is Expedition 50.

International Space Station Expedition 50.  Left to Right:  Borisenko, Kimbrough, Ryzhikov, Pesquet, Whitson, Novitsky.  Photo credit:  NASA

This is Whitson's third spaceflight, Novitsky's second, and Pesquet's first.  Whitson's other two flights also were to ISS and she was the first woman to serve as ISS commander during her second tour in 2008.  She also will serve as commander during this rotation -- the only woman to command the ISS twice so far.  At 56, she is the oldest woman to launch into space and did an interview for AARP (available on YouTube) where she talks about the value of age and experience on spaceflights.  (John Glenn became the oldest man to make a spaceflight when he was a member of a space shuttle crew at the age of 77 in 1998.  In 1962, 36 years earlier, he was the first American to orbit the Earth on his only other spaceflight.)

Less than 10 hours after Soyuz MS-03 lifted off from Kazakhstan, China's Jing Haipeng and Chen Dong returned to Earth aboard their Shenzhou-11 spacecraft after a month on China's second space station, Tiangong-2.  At 8.6 MT, Tiangong-2 is much smaller than ISS and is not equipped for permanent occupancy.  China has sent mixed messages about whether a second crew will be sent there or if it will wait for its own larger, multi-modular space station.  A three-module 60 MT space station is expected to be completed around 2022. China does plan to send a robotic cargo ship to Tiangong-2 in April.  Named Tianzhou-1, its primary purpose is to test refueling.

China's human spaceflight program proceeds at a measured pace.  Since 2003, it has launched people into space only six times.  This 32-day mission (30 days on Tiangong-2, 2 days in transit) is China's longest to date.  Jing and Chen landed at approximately 1:00 am EST (2:00 pm local time in China) some distance from their predicted landing site.  At press time, they still had not exited the capsule.  This was Jing's third spaceflight and Chen's first.

Jing Haipeng.  Photo Credit: Xinhua

Chen Dong.  Photo Credit: Xinhua

Congress Poised to Punt on FY2017 Appropriations, Extend CR Instead

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Nov-2016 (Updated: 19-Nov-2016 09:12 AM)

It looks like Congress will delay finalizing FY2017 appropriations until next year after Donald Trump is sworn in as President.  House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) announced today that his committee will now focus on writing a bill extending the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) until March 31, 2017.  The Senate has not officially agreed with the House plan of action, but signs are that it will.  Whether the incoming Trump Administration and 115th Congress will be ready to finalize FY2017 funding by that date, or just kick the can further down the road, remains to be seen.

Rogers has valiantly advocated for a return to "regular order" in the congressional appropriations process where all 12 regular appropriations bills are considered and approved at subcommittee level, then by the full committee, then debated and passed by the House, and conferenced with Senate counterparts to present a final bill to the President.

He successfully pushed his 12 appropriations subcommittees to finish their work in a timely manner this year, but only one bill, Military Construction-Veterans Affairs (MilCon-VA), made it through the process.  It is incorporated into the existing CR.  The CR funds all the other government departments and agencies at their FY2016 funding levels just through December 9.  Congress must pass some type of appropriations by then to keep the government operating. 

In the week since the election, congressional leaders have been weighing whether to finish the other 11 bills, packaging them into a single "omnibus" spending bill or several smaller "mini-buses," or delay action until Trump takes office.

The latter choice was made today.

In a press release, Rogers made no secret of his disappointment, but remained philosophical.

"While I'm disappointed that the Congress is not going to be able to complete our annual funding work this year, I am extremely hopeful that the new Congress and the new Administration will finish these bills. I am also hopeful for a renewed and vigorous 'regular order' on future annual funding bills, so that the damaging process of Continuing Resolutions will no longer be necessary."

House rules set 6-year term limits for committee chairs and Rogers has reached that limit, so will not chair the full Appropriations Committee in the next Congress. He is vying to become chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.

Speaking at a Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) luncheon this afternoon, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), a member of the Appropriations Committee and just elected to his third term, was more blunt.   Kilmer calls his Seattle-area district, which is home to Blue Origin and Planetary Resources among others, the "Silicon Valley of space."  He was a key figure in passage of the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act last year, and this year in convincing the Transportation-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee to fully fund the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. 

Asked about the decision to extend the CR instead of providing full-year funding, he said he could not "explain the inexplicable" or "defend the indefensible" and Congress needs to return to regular order and pass appropriations bills.   "I don't think that is a good way to do business. ...  When I chose to run for Congress it was with the knowledge that what Congress does and doesn't do has a big impact on industry for good and for bad. Some of that is positive investments in workforce, infrastructure, and establishing a regulatory framework that provides certainty.  Some of that is budget certainty."   When Congress does not pass appropriations bills on time, it not only is disruptive to government agencies, "but also has a negative impact on industry."

Outgoing Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) also expressed her dissatisfaction.   She is retiring from the Senate next month.

"This is deeply disappointing.  Once again, Republicans are stymying our ability to do our job and meet our constitutional responsibility to produce full year appropriations bills for the American people," she said in a press release.

Mikulski chaired the Senate Appropriations Committee and the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, which funds NASA and NOAA, when Democrats were in control of the Senate.  She is the top Democrat on the committee and subcommittee now and an ardent advocate for NOAA and NASA's space and earth science programs in particular.   "We believe we can finish the job.  We do not want a government shutdown.  Our principles remain the same: parity between defense and non-defense, no poison pill riders and compliance with the Bipartisan Budget Act. ... We could do it.   Where there's a will there's a way.  Republicans instead have decided to procrastinate rather than legislate."

CRs typically fund agencies at their prior year levels unless exceptions are made.  In this case, there may be more exceptions than usual.  The Obama Administration just sent a supplemental request to Congress for additional defense spending, for example, that likely will be wrapped into the CR, and there is concern that attempts will be made to include some of those "poison pill" provisions Mikulski referenced (such as ending federal funding for Planned Parenthood).  

On the other hand, some Senate Republicans reportedly are arguing to pass a CR for the rest of FY2017, not just to the end of the March, so they do not have to deal with the issue in the spring when other Trump Administration priorities are being debated.

It may take a while to develop a new CR that can get enough votes to pass Congress and win President Obama's signature. They have until December 9 to do something.

Assuming a new CR passes -- which should not be taken for granted, although a government shutdown just before Christmas would not be to either party's advantage -- how much longer the 114th Congress will remain in session thereafter is up in the air.   It would not be surprising if they adjourned as soon as the CR is passed, further limiting the amount of time to get other legislation, like the FY2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act, finalized.

No Transition Team for NASA "At This Time"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-Nov-2016 (Updated: 17-Nov-2016 12:03 AM)

It was just one week ago today that the world learned Republicans swept the White House, the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Today, all three bodies are gearing up for a new presidency and a new session of Congress, but there is little clarity about how the space program will be affected.  Despite all the recent rampant rumors about who would be on the Trump transition team for NASA, for example, it turns out there will not be one at all, at least for now.

Election Results and the Incoming Trump Administration

Votes in Michigan are still being tallied, but as of this morning Politico shows that nationally Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by about 1 million, while Donald Trump won the Electoral College 290-232 (270 are needed to win).  Under the Constitution, it is the Electoral College, not the popular vote, that determines the winner.  The Electoral College does not meet until next month to make the vote official, but Trump's lead is sufficient that it is just a formality.  Who wins Michigan's 16 electors will not change the outcome.

The President-Elect Transition Team (PETT) is still getting its sea legs. The sudden decision last week to replace the transition organization set up by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and replace it with a new team led by Vice President-Elect Mike Pence has disrupted the process.  Reports are widespread in Washington about intense in-fighting within PETT although Trump officials insist that is not true.  Ironically, Congress passed a law allowing presidential transition teams to begin their work earlier than in the past -- after the party conventions instead of waiting until the election -- because issues are so complex that more time is needed to allow for an orderly transfer of power.  Christie's team consequently was put in place after the Republican Convention in July, but much of that effort appears to have been for naught.  Who is or is not working on the Pence transition team changes daily.

Typically, presidential transition teams assign small groups -- currently called Agency Review Teams (ARTs) -- to each department and agency.   There have been many rumors about who is on the NASA team, but today NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot sent a memo to NASA employees stating that NASA has been informed that no ART will be assigned to NASA for now.

"The President-Elect Transition Team (PETT) has indicated that NASA will not be receiving an Agency Review Team (ART) at this time.  NASA, as all federal agencies, stands ready to support the PETT at a future date."

A NASA transition team could be set up later, although time is getting short, or the incoming Administration could wait until after the inauguration to address NASA and other space issues.

Rumors were that former Congressman Bob Walker would be very involved in a NASA transition team.  He was the point man for space policy during the final weeks of the Trump campaign.  He co-authored two op-eds for Space News, one on civil space policy, the other on national security space, and spoke to the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) on October 26 outlining top-level Trump space priorities.  Walker became a lobbyist after he retired from Congress and is now executive chairman of one of the top lobbying firms in Washington, Wexler|Walker.  The lobbyist ban presumably excludes him from serving now.   Mark Albrecht is another person frequently mentioned as a potential NASA transition team member.  He was Executive Director of the White House National Space Council during the George H. W. Bush Administration.  Reviving a National Space Council to coordinate U.S. national security, civil and commercial space policy is a key feature of what Walker has described as Trump space priorities.  

The quadrennial parlor game of guessing who will be nominated to fill various positions, like NASA Administrator, is in full swing, but it is far too early for any useful reporting on that score.  All that is known is that current Presidential appointees must submit their resignations as of the end of the Obama Administration on January 20. The new President can accept the resignations or not.  If not, the individual can decide whether or not to remain.  Dan Goldin survived two presidential transitions, serving almost 10 years as NASA Administrator.  He was appointed in the last year of the George H.W. Bush Administration, stayed through the Bill Clinton Administration and into the first year of the George W. Bush Administration.  It does not seem likely that current Administrator Charlie Bolden is interested in trying to beat that record, but whether he would be willing to stay, if asked, until, for example, a new NASA Administrator is confirmed is something only he knows.  He has been Administrator since July 17, 2009.

Wrapping Up the 114th Congress, Preparing for the 115th

Up on Capitol Hill, the Republicans retained control of the House and Senate.  Not all contests are completed yet, but as of today, Politico reports today there will be 238 Republicans and 193 Democrats in the House, and 51 Republicans, 46 Democrats and 2 Independents in the Senate.  Four House races and one for the Senate (Louisiana) are not final yet.  A run-off election in Louisiana for the Senate seat and two of the House seats is set for December 10.  The other two House seats that have not been called yet are in California.

Yesterday and today, House and Senate Republicans reelected their party leaders -- House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY).  Senate Democrats elected Chuck Schumer (D-NY) as Senate Minority Leader to replace Harry Reid (D-NV), who is retiring.  House Democrats decided yesterday to delay their decision on who will be House Minority Leader in the next Congress.  Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is the incumbent and while the delay may signal some dissatisfaction with her remaining in that position, the betting is that she will keep the job though there might be changes in other leadership positions as there were in the Senate.  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), for example, was appointed to a Senate Democratic leadership post even though he is not a Democrat, but an Independent.  His strong showing during the primaries convinced Senate Democrats that he was connecting with a part of the electorate they want and need.

The 114th Congress still has a few weeks to go before the 115th Congress convenes in January.  During that time, Congress must pass one or more appropriations bills to keep the government operating after December 9 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires.  A decision has not yet been made on whether to extend the current CR or pass full-year appropriations bills. 

Congress is expected to complete work on the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and could pass the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act, which cleared the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee in September.  The Senate has not passed the bill yet.  Whether it gets through Congress and to President Obama's desk depends on how deeply motivated members on both sides of Capitol Hill are to conveying their civil space policy preferences to the new President through legislation.

The first day of legislative business for the 115th Congress has not been formally announced yet, but the House is expected to meet to count the electoral votes on January 6. (Officially new Congresses begin on January 3, but that is a Sunday in 2017.) 

Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th U.S. President on the steps of the Capitol on January 20. 

One of first tasks for the new Trump Administration will be developing a FY2018 budget request to be submitted to Congress in the spring.   By law, the budget is supposed to be submitted on the first Monday in February.  The Obama Administration rarely met that schedule (in part because Congress did not finish work on the prior year's budget in a timely manner) and any incoming Administration clearly cannot get it done in such a short time.  

Whenever it is released, it will be the first real indication of the new Administration's budget priorities for all federal government departments and agencies, including space activities at NASA, NOAA, FAA and DOD.  As tempting as it may be to speculate, it is important to wait before building up or dashing hopes.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 14-19, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Nov-2016 (Updated: 14-Nov-2016 08:21 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of November 14-19, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The House and Senate return to work for one week beginning tomorrow (Monday).  The House meets for legislative business Monday-Thursday; the Senate will be in pro forma session on Monday and meet for legislative business the rest of the week.  Then they will recess again until after Thanksgiving.

With Republicans retaining control of both chambers, there will be less organizational work to prepare for the 115th Congress that convenes in January.  The one "must do" item between now and the end of the year is passing appropriations bill(s) to fund the government past December 9.  As we wrote yesterday, it's not clear how that will play out, but it's hard to imagine anyone wants a government shutdown at this point, so they will have to work something out.  One "probably will do" is complete action on the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  A number of other pieces of legislation could also be completed, such as the NASA Transition Authorization Act, if the various parties can reach agreement.  It's doubtful any of that will be finalized this week, but progress may be made behind the scenes.

Everyone is still catching their breaths after the stunning election results. The quadrennial parlor game of guessing who will be to tapped to lead NASA and NOAA (and every other government agency) is in full swing along with prognosticating about the incoming Trump Administration's space priorities.  It's far too early to know based on the limited information the Trump campaign issued, but that doesn't mean it's not fun to play.  We'll refrain from speculating on new agency leaders, but, programmatically, here's our two cents worth on NASA's future.  Human spaceflight will be fine, though we think the days are numbered for the Asteroid Redirect Mission and fully expect a human return to the surface of the Moon to be restored to the long term plan; space science will hold its own, though within a more constrained budget if deficit-cutting regains popularity; and earth science will not do very well not only because President-elect Trump is a climate change skeptic, but Sen. Barbara Mikulski is retiring so will not be in a position to rescue it.  We don't have a good feel for aeronautics or space technology.  Both are very popular in theory, but routinely underfunded in practice.  One worry is that if the total NASA budget is constrained due to broad deficit cutting goals, and human spaceflight programs exceed current cost targets -- let's be honest, that would hardly be surprising -- other parts of the NASA portfolio will pay the price.   Meanwhile, public private partnerships will continue to be encouraged, as will interagency and international cooperation/coordination.

That will all take place over the next months and years.   Getting back to this week, there is, as usual, a lot of very interesting events coming up.  To pick just three, tomorrow's meeting of the NASA Advisory Council's Human Exploration and Operations Committee at JSC could be interesting (available remotely by WebEx/telecon).  Kathy Lueders, program manager for the commercial crew program, is on the agenda for 1:45 pm Central Time (2:45 pm Eastern). Perhaps she will address some of the issues raised in the letter that Tom Stafford and his ISS Advisory Committee sent to Bill Gerstenmaier about SpaceX's plans to fuel the Falcon 9 rocket while crews are aboard.  At a minimum, she should provide an update on when the Trump Administration can expect to see American astronauts on American rockets sent to the ISS from American soil.  Instead of launching on Russian rockets from Kazakhstan, as will happen on Thursday when Peggy Whitson and her Soyuz MS-03 crewmates, ESA's Thomas Pesquet and Roscosmos's Oleg Novitsky, blast off from Baikonur.

Our second top pick this week is Saturday's launch of NOAA's GOES-R satellite. NASA TV is in the unenviable position of needing to cover the Soyuz MS-03 launch and GOES-R pre-launch briefings both on Thursday afternoon, and the Soyuz MS-03 docking at ISS and GOES-R launch, both on Saturday afternoon.  NASA TV has a public channel and a media channel; if you don't find the programming you're looking for on one, try the other.   GOES-R is the first of four next-generation geostationary weather satellites that NOAA has been developing for many years.  It will be redesignated GOES-16 once in orbit.  The other three have launch dates stretching out into the mid-2020s.   The spacecraft has an on-board orbit-raising engine similar to one that failed on MUOS-5, but NASA and NOAA are confident that a backup system will get GOES-R to its correct orbit no matter what.

Third is a Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) luncheon on Thursday featuring Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA).   He represents a Seattle-area district that is home to companies like Blue Origin and Planetary Resources -- he calls it the Silicon Valley of space.  He is one of the congressional champions of creating a legal and regulatory environment conducive to new types of commercial space ventures and worked with Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) earlier this year to get the House Appropriations Committee to approve the full requested funding level for FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. He may have some insight as to what Capitol Hill will do in these closing weeks of the 114th Congress and his own prognostication of what the next four years have in store for space.

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.

Monday, November 14

Monday-Tuesday, November 14-15

  • NAC Aeronautics Committee, NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, CA (WebEx/telecon, but must contact NASA in advance to get call-in information)
  • Small Satellite Workshop (USGIF), NGA East Campus, Springfield, VA (Nov 15 sessions are classified)

Tuesday, November 15

Tuesday-Wednesday, November 15-16

Tuesday-Thursday, November 15-17

Wednesday-Friday, November 16-18

Thursday, November 17

Thursday-Friday, November 17-18

Friday, November 18

Saturday, November 18


Correction: an earlier version of this article listed the start time for Monday's NAC/HEO meeting as 9:00 am Central Time, but it begins at 9:30 am CT (10:30 am ET).

Events of Interest


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