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Bridenstine Argues for FAA/AST Funding Increase, Gets Endorsement for NASA Administrator

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Mar-2017 (Updated: 10-Mar-2017 08:12 AM)

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) testified before a House Appropriations subcommittee today making the case for a funding increase for FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST).   He won praise from subcommittee members and one, who also happens to chair the subcommittee that funds NASA, endorsed Bridenstine to serve as the next NASA Administrator.  Bridenstine is said to be one of the top candidates, although the White House has not nominated anyone for that position yet.

Bridenstine is a leading member of Congress on space policy issues across the civil, commercial and national security sectors.  He introduced the American Space Renaissance Act last year and plans to reintroduce it this year.  He describes it as a bill that is not expected to pass en toto, but instead serve as a repository of provisions that can be inserted into various pieces of legislation as appropriate.  Ten of the provisions of last year's bill were incorporated in the FY2017 national Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

He particularly advocates for an expansion of FAA/AST's budget and regulatory authorities, including making it responsible for regulating in-space activities in addition to launch and reentry, and for managing space situational awareness for non-defense entities.

FAA is part of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and funded in the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill.   During debate on the FY2017 appropriations bill, he and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) convinced the House Appropriations Committee to provide FAA/AST with the full amount of its funding request ($19.8 million) after the T-HUD subcommittee approved only half of the requested increase. 

President Trump has not submitted his FY2018 budget request yet, but the various House Appropriations subcommittees are in the midst of "Members' Day" hearings where their fellow Members of Congress testify on issues of interest to them.

Today, Bridenstine testified to the T-HUD subcommittee in favor of increasing FAA/AST's funding to $23 million in FY2018.  The subcommittee is chaired by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R-FL) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is a member.  Culberson also chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA and NOAA.


Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) testifies to the House Appropriations Transportation-HUD subcommittee on the FY2018 budget for FAA/AST.  March 9, 2017.  Screengrab from committee webcast.

Bridenstine made the case that space launch is part of the nation's infrastructure considering that satellite systems are essential to how the country does navigating and communicating, produces food and energy, and provides security and disaster relief.  "What used to be the domain of government -- space -- is now the domain of private operators and commercial operators," he explained.  FAA/AST oversees commercial launches and needs the resources to execute its duties, he continued, especially considering the burgeoning business expected in the near future.

He pointed out that although the Appropriations Committee approved the $19.8 million for FY2017, since Congress did not complete consideration of the FY2017 appropriations billl, FAA/AST remains funded at its FY2016 level ($17.8 million) under the Continuing Resolution (CR), further constraining its activities.

No commitments were made by the T-HUD subcommittee members, but Diaz-Balart praised Bridenstine for his effective work with the subcommittee: "We appreciate your involvement, we appreciate your hard work."

Culberson also lauded Bridenstine for his work on behalf of the commercial space sector, but went further and endorsed Bridenstine to head NASA:  "Jim would do a superb job with that position and I want to strongly express my endorsement and support ... and hope to see you become the new NASA Administrator and look forward to helping you in that role."

Culberson holds a powerful position with regard to NASA funding, but the process of selecting and confirming agency heads is the purview of the White House and Senate.  First the White House must submit a nominee, then the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee -- which oversees NASA in the Senate -- will consider the nomination before heading to a vote by the full Senate.

Although Bridenstine's name has been often mentioned (along with others) since soon after the election, the President has not nominated anyone yet.  That is not surprising.  Filling the position of NASA Administrator is not usually at the top of the list for action in a new administration.  Cabinet-level and top DOD  positions typically are dealt with first.  The Senate has not yet finished action on all of the Cabinet appointments and only one nomination for the three service secretaries is pending (Heather Wilson to be Secretary of the Air Force.)  The nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy both withdrew their names because of difficulties in disentangling from their business interests.

House Passes NASA Transition Authorization Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Mar-2017 (Updated: 07-Mar-2017 08:59 PM)

The House passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 by voice vote this evening, clearing the measure for the President.  The bill sets policy for NASA and recommends funding for FY2017, but does not actually provide any money.

The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate by unanimous consent on February 17.  It passed the House today by voice vote.  House consideration of the bill was delayed a week.  No explanation of the delay was offered today and no changes to the bill were made.  The bill now goes to the President for signature.  The White House has not publicly indicated whether he will sign it or not, but the fact that it passed Congress so easily with bipartisanship support is encouraging.

Human spaceflight is a major focus of the bill, although it also addresses NASA's space science, space technology and aeronautics programs.  It is silent on earth sciences, a topic of partisan discord.  Many Republicans argue that NASA should focus on space exploration while other agencies conduct earth science research.  Many Democrats insist that only NASA launches earth science research satellites that are essential for understanding the only planet in the solar system that supports human life.  During the debate on the House floor today, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, rued the fact that the bill did not address earth science, while Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, pressed the argument that NASA should focus on exploration.

The 146-page bill's overall purpose is to codify congressional intent regarding NASA's future during a time of transition from one presidential administration to another.  Stability is the watchword.   SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request summarizes the bill.  Among its key provisions are the following.

  • offers a Sense of Congress that the International Space Station (ISS) should continue until at least 2024 and perhaps until 2028;
  • indemnifies launch and reentry service providers from third party claims, with conditions, for launches that are unusually hazardous or nuclear in nature;
  • requires NASA to submit to Congress a "human exploration roadmap" to "expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and beyond" in a steppingstone manner, and requires a study on a human mission to Mars to be launched in 2033 (it does not specify if it is to orbit or land);
  • directs the NASA Administrator to submit a report on how the Orion spacecraft can be used to fulfill a provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to serve as a backup to commercial crew to take crews to and from the ISS, including on launch vehicles other than the Space Launch System (SLS);
  • supports the SLS and Orion programs;
  • states that Congress is not convinced that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission is worth the benefits and asks for an analysis of alternatives to demonstrate technologies and capabilities needed for human exploration of Mars;
  • allows NASA to provide health care to former astronauts and government payload specialists for conditions resulting from their spaceflights;
  • reaffirms congressional intent that NASA have a balanced and adequately funded science portfolio including small, medium and large space missions, suborbital missions, research and analysis grants, and technology development, with science priorities guided by the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine;
  • specifically supports the Mars 2020 rover, a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope, and prohibits NASA from cancelling the airborne SOFIA infrared telescope;
  • adds a 10th item to the list of objectives in NASA's organic act -- "the search for life's origins, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe";
  • requires reports from the NASA Administrator on public-private partnerships to study astrobiology and Near Earth Objects;
  • allows NASA to conduct Senior Reviews of its science missions on a triennial rather than biennial basis;
  • expresses support for a robust aeronautics programs; and
  • establishes as policy that NASA develop technologies to support NASA's core missions.

Lightfoot: NASA Budget Still in Formulation, "Confident" of Administration Support

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Mar-2017 (Updated: 07-Mar-2017 05:41 PM)

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot told employees today that the NASA budget is still in the formulation phase and he remains "confident" in the Trump Administration's support for the agency.

In a memo entitled "Update on Budget Process," Lightfoot explained that the process for formulating the FY2018 budget request to Congress is later than usual because of the presidential transition, but the timing is "not unusual during a transition year."  The deliberations are "not yet at a point" where sufficient details can be shared other than what is already known publicly -- the President plans to increase defense spending by $54 billion and decrease it for non-defense spending by the same amount.  NASA is part of non-defense spending.

"While the final numbers for the agency and its programs are going through this give and take process, we remain confident in the Administration [sic] support for NASA," he writes.

The White House is expected to release its "budget blueprint" publicly on March 16 that will provide top-level numbers for NASA and other government agencies, but the detailed requests are not anticipated until May.

Last week, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent government agencies memos stating what it is currently planning to request for their activities.  Although the information is supposed to remain confidential, details are leaking out.  NOAA's budget is due for a 17 percent cut, for example, and multiple news sources published reports today that the Trump Administration plans deep cuts to the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), all part of the Department of Homeland Security, in order to fund the construction of the border wall. Significant proposed cuts to the State Department, foreign aid, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also have made the news.

Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) was quoted by AL.com as telling constituents yesterday that the non-defense spending cuts "may include NASA and you need to be mindful of that."  Brooks is a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and vice-chair of its Space Subcommittee.  His district includes NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA is currently funded by a FY2017 Continuing Resolution (CR) at basically its FY2016 funding level of $19.285 billion.  Congress has not completed action on the FY2017 budget request from the Obama Administration, which was $18.262 billion in appropriated funds (see SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's budget for an explanation of the FY2017 request, which was convoluted.) The House and Senate Appropriations Committees were poised to provide much more than that request, providing slightly more than FY2016 before time ran out on the 114th Congress. The CR expires on April 28 and Congress must pass new appropriations to keep NASA (and other agencies) operating past that point.

The House is expected to pass a FY2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act today, clearing it for the President. That bill does not provide any funding for NASA, however.  It is an authorization bill that sets policy and recommends funding levels, but only appropriations committees have money to spend.  (Not clear on the difference between appropriations and authorizations?  See SpacePolicyOnline.con's "What's a Markup" fact sheet.)

Whatever the President's request turns out to be, it is just that, a request.  Under the Constitution, Congress has the "power of the purse."  Only Congress decides how much money the government will spend and on what. 

As Lightfoot points out in his memo: "we have a long ways to go in the budget process."

What's Happening in Space Policy March 6-10, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Mar-2017 (Updated: 05-Mar-2017 04:35 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 6-10, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

Hang onto your hats!  It's going to be quite a week.  From two overlapping conferences (Satellite 2017 and the AAS Goddard Memorial Symposium) in Washington to the first meeting of a new National Academies committee on planetary protection policy to scheduled House floor action on two important pieces of legislation to the annual "Space Prom" and many other events in between, we'll barely have time to catch our breaths.

Starting on Capitol Hill, the House has scheduled floor action -- again -- on the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 (S. 442).  At this point last Sunday, it was included on the House Majority Leader's list of legislation to be considered under suspension of the rules the next day.  Later, however, it was pulled from the list. There are varying viewpoints on why.  It is back on the list now for a vote on Tuesday.  We're not going to say it "will" come up for a vote, only that it is on the schedule at the moment.

The FY2017 defense appropriations bill is also on the floor schedule for debate to begin on Wednesday "subject to a rule being granted."  That one will be debated under regular order, which requires a rule delineating what amendments are in order and how much time is allocated for debate, for example.  The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday at 5:00 pm ET to write that rule.  Defense appropriations is one of the 12 regular appropriations bills Congress is supposed to pass each year.  None of the 12 cleared Congress last year.  Government agencies are operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) basically at their FY2016 levels until April 28.  Congress must pass new legislation before then to keep them operating.  The defense bill is the first one out of the gate. The House passed a different FY2017 defense appropriations bill last year.  This new one (H.R. 1301) reflects agreement with the Senate and the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which did become law.  One space program singled out in the House Appropriations Committee's summary of the bill is that it includes funding for GPS III operational control and space segments.

Also on the Hill and also on Wednesday, the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Space Subcommittee has a hearing scheduled on "Regulating Space: Innovation, Liberty, and International Obligations."   Regulatory matters may not be everyone's cup of tea, but this hearing has a REALLY interesting set of witnesses who will lend their expertise to issues that could have a profound effect on how the private sector engages in new non-traditional activities in Earth orbit and beyond.  It's at 10:00 am ET.  The committee webcasts its hearings. 

Fortunately the committee archives the webcasts for people who can't be in multiple places at once, which is how Wednesday is shaping up.  The Satellite 2017 conference will be in full swing (it begins Monday) at the Washington Convention Center and the American Astronautical Society's Goddard Memorial Symposium will be starting at the Greenbelt Marriott in Greenbelt, MD, just outside the Beltway. 

Your SpacePolicyOnline.com editor will be at the AAS Goddard Symposium on Wednesday moderating a panel discussion in the afternoon on "The Political Environment" with a terrific panel:  Frank Morring of Aviation Week; Chris Shank, now at DOD, but who headed the NASA transition team for the Trump Administration; Tom Hammond from the House SS&T Space Subcommittee; and Nick Cummings from the Senate Commerce Committee.   Others who will be speaking at the two-day conference include NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, AURA President Matt Mountain, and, at various points in the program, the NASA Associate Administrators heading the three mission directorates most involved in space (Bill Gerstenmaier, Thomas Zurbuchen, and Steve Jurczyk) and Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen.  AAS hasn't posted a link for a webcast of the conference, though it has livestreamed the annual conference in the past.  If we learn of one, we'll add it to the entry on our Events of Interest calendar.

Also on Wednesday a new National Academies study committee on Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes will continue its meeting, which begins Tuesday.  Some sessions are closed, but those that are open will be available by WebEx and telecon. The committee is assessing how planetary protection policy is developed domestically and internationally and whether it is responsive to, among other things, "the exploration interests of state and non-state actors."  Non-state actors include private companies, like SpaceX with its Red Dragon plans to land spacecraft on Mars.

And still on Wednesday, a symposium on "Will Collaboration or Competition Get Humans to Mars and Beyond" with a fascinating set of speakers -- established voices and completely new ones -- hosted by a group called Future Tense, which itself is a collaboration of Slate, New America and Arizona State University.  A little later, Defense One and Next Gov will hold a "cocktails and conversation" event on "Space and Satellites in the New Administration."  Both sound really interesting.  Their websites don't indicate if they will be webcast, but, if they are, hopefully they'll be archived so those of us who don't have clones can catch up later.

There are many other events (see the list below) that we can't highlight here or this would go on and on and on.  The week at last comes to a close with the National Space Club's annual Goddard Memorial Dinner -- or the Space Prom as it is affectionately known -- as usual at the Hilton Washington. There'll be a lot to talk about.

As a heads up, though we'll need a lot of rest after a week like that, unfortunately the United States returns to Daylight Saving Time next Sunday (March 12) so we'll lose an hour of sleep.

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

Monday-Tuesday, March 6-7

Monday-Wednesday, March 6-8

Monday-Thursday, March 6-9

  • Satellite 2017, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 7

Tuesday-Thursday, March 7-9

Wednesday, March 8

Thursday, March 9

Friday, March 10

Washington Post: Trump Proposing 17 Percent Cut to NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Mar-2017 (Updated: 04-Mar-2017 01:43 PM)

The Washington Post is reporting that the Trump Administration is proposing a 17 percent cut to NOAA's budget for FY2018.  NOAA has a broad portfolio including building and operating the nation's civil weather satellites. The Post report does not specify how the satellite programs would fare, but the National Environmental Data and Information Service (NESDIS), which includes most of the funding for satellites, would be cut by 22 percent.

The newspaper says that it obtained a copy of a four-page memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to NOAA laying out its proposal for FY2018, which begins on October 1.

Congress has not completed action on NOAA's FY2017 budget.  Like other government agencies, it is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) at its FY2016 spending levels through April 28, by which time Congress must pass new legislation to keep the government operating.  The CR included an exemption, however, to allow NOAA to continue spending money at a rate to ensure that the launch schedule for its Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) remains on track.  JPSS Is one of two complementary weather satellite programs operated by NOAA.  The other is the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) System.

The Trump Administration is at the beginning of the process for formulating the FY2018 budget.  A broad "budget blueprint" will be released very soon, but the detailed request is not expected for several weeks. The numbers in the four-page memo are subject to change before the request is submitted to Congress, and, in any case, the President's request is just that, a request.  Under the Constitution, only Congress has the "power of the purse," deciding how much money the government will spend and on what.

The Post did not publish the memo itself.  Its report refers to changes compared to NOAA's "current budget," which presumably is the FY2016 budget as adjusted by the CR.  The exact figures are not public.  For comparison purposes, the FY2016 enacted budget as published in NOAA's budget "blue book" will have to suffice.  It is $5.774 billion, which includes:

  • $602 million for the National Ocean Service;
  • $972 million for the National Marine Fisheries Service;
  • $482 million for the Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research;
  • $1,124 million for the National Weather Service;
  • $2,349 million for the National Environmental Data and Information Services (NESDIS);
  • $254 million for Mission Support;
  • $334 million for the Office of Marine and Aviation Operations; and
  • a reduction of $344 million in various adjustments.

The $2,349 million for NESDIS is split between "Operations, Research and Facilities" (ORF) and "Procurement, Acquisition and Construction" (PAC).  ORF is $189 million, PAC is $2,160 million. The majority of spending on satellites is in the PAC account.  (For more on NOAA's satellite programs and the NESDIS PAC budget for FY2016 and request for FY2017, see SpacePolicyOnline.com's NOAA Budget Fact Sheet.)

According to the Washington Post, NESDIS would be cut "$513 million, or 22 percent," a percentage that roughly corresponds to the NESDIS FY2016 budget.  It cites the National Centers for Environmental Information, a repository for climate and environmental information, as a target for the NESDIS cuts, but it is a comparatively small office with a budget of about $60 million.

Responsibility for environmental satellites is split between NASA and NOAA.  Generally speaking, NASA funds research satellites while NOAA funds operational satellites.   The line between them has shifted back and forth throughout the decades.   Most recently, in the FY2016 budget process, President Obama proposed and Congress approved shifting some of NOAA's satellite activities to NASA.  The change designated NASA as the nation's  primary civil environmental satellite agency, with NOAA retaining only terrestrial weather (including radio occultation satellites, which help improve forecasts) and space weather satellite programs.

During the presidential campaign, two advisers to the Trump campaign, Bob Walker and Peter Navarro, wrote that NASA should focus on exploration, not earth science, arguing that other agencies, like NOAA, can perform whatever research is needed.  Conversely, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, recently praised NASA's earth science program and suggested that NASA take responsibility for NOAA's satellite programs. The CJS subcommittee funds both NASA and NOAA, so much of the future of the nation's environmental satellite programs rests with Culberson and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL).  For many years, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a powerful member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, was the chief champion for NASA and NOAA earth science activities, but she just retired, accentuating the sense of uncertainty the earth science community is facing right now.

 

Trump Invokes Dream of Footprints on Distant Worlds

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Feb-2017 (Updated: 28-Feb-2017 10:30 PM)

In his first speech to Congress, President Donald Trump mentioned the human spaceflight program, though with too little specificity to clarify what he has in mind for the U.S. space program.  Still, the fact that the space program was mentioned at all could be a positive indication that his Administration will support it against the backdrop of expected deep budget cuts for non-defense programs.

Word that Trump would say something about human spaceflight in his speech to a joint session of Congress tonight became public late this afternoon. 

The short sentence appears close to the end of the speech:  "American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream."

The space community is certain to dissect those words and try to divine their meaning -- what worlds (is the Moon a "distant world"?), on what timeline, with the government and the private sector playing what roles -- but useful analysis will have to await further information. 

A first step will be his FY2018 budget request.  A "budget blueprint" already has been delivered to agencies by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) providing guidance, but a detailed request will not be submitted to Congress for several weeks.  Overall, the Administration plans to request a $54 billion increase for defense programs, coupled with a $54 billion decrease for non-defense agencies like NASA. 

Deep cuts planned for the State Department and foreign aid have already created consternation in Congress, with Sen. Lindsey Graham, a fellow Republican, saying the budget request will be "dead on arrival." 

The sentence does not resolve any of the issues about the future of the human spaceflight program, but at least signals that the President supports the overall concept.

SpaceX Plans to Send Two People Around Moon in 2018

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 28-Feb-2017 12:49 AM)

SpaceX today announced plans to send two private citizens on a trip around the Moon next year.  The launch will use the company's Falcon Heavy rocket and Crew Dragon, neither of which has flown yet.

SpaceX is under contract to NASA to develop Crew Dragon as a "commercial crew" vehicle to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).   Today's announcement stated that the private citizen trip to the Moon will take place after operational commercial crew flights have begun.  SpaceX insists that its Crew Dragon, launched by the Falcon 9 rocket, will be operational in 2018, although the Government Accountability Office (GAO) expressed doubt that it would fly before 2019 in a report released earlier this month.   In response, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said "the [heck] we won't fly before 2019."

The company said again today that it plans to launch an unoccupied test version of Crew Dragon later this year and the first flight with a crew in the second quarter of 2018.  Operational flights would ensue thereafter.  SpaceX already launches a cargo version of Dragon to ISS; one is docked there right now.  It is not outfitted for crews, however.

The Falcon Heavy rocket has been under development for several years.  The date for its first launch has slipped repeatedly, most recently from November 2016 to sometime this summer.  SpaceX says that it is two-thirds the size of the Saturn V rocket that sent Apollo astronauts to the Moon.

The two private citizens were not identified, but SpaceX says they have already paid a "significant deposit."  The price was not revealed.

The announcement comes just three days after a NASA media teleconference where two NASA officials discussed an ongoing internal study to determine the feasibility of putting a crew on the first launch of NASA's new rocket -- the Space Launch System (SLS).  Under NASA's current plan, the first SLS, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will be launched with an unoccupied Orion spacecraft.  It is scheduled for launch at the end of 2018, although that date appears likely to slip into 2019.  A crew would not fly on SLS/Orion until the second launch, EM-2, currently targeted for August 2021.  NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot has asked for a study to determine the safety, technical and cost implications of changing that plan and putting astronauts on EM-1 for an 8-9 day mission to lunar orbit.  The study should be done in about a month.

The initial version of SLS will be able to launch 70 metric tons (MT) into low Earth orbit (LEO), compared to 54 MT for Falcon Heavy. Later versions of SLS will be capable of placing 105 MT and 130 MT into LEO.

Some view SpaceX's announcement as a challenge to NASA -- a new space race.  The two did not paint that picture, however.  SpaceX enthused about NASA's role in getting the company to where it is today:  "Most importantly, we would like to thank NASA, without whom this would not be possible."  Musk frequently praises NASA for rescuing his fledgling company a decade ago after it suffered three Falcon 1 launch failures in a row, but NASA selected it for the COTS commercial cargo development program anyway.  SpaceX just launched its 10th commercial cargo mission for NASA on February 19.   NASA selected SpaceX (and Boeing) for the final phase of the commercial crew program in 2014.

For its part, NASA said in a press release that it "commends its industry partners for reaching higher" and will continue to work with SpaceX "to ensure it safely meets its contractual obligations" on commercial crew and commercial cargo.

In an interview, Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) President Eric Stallmer called the announcement "exciting" and, if it is a race, it is "in the best spirit possible."  If it motivates NASA to move more quickly, "that's a win for everyone."   CSF is working with the international standards organization ASTM International on developing voluntary industry standards for commercial human spaceflight.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation has limited regulatory authority now and is prohibited from developing new regulations until 2023, but industry could set its own standards. By law, companies must only provide informed consent to passengers who want to fly into space, warning them of the risks and letting them make their own decisions on whether to accept them.

NASA Buys Soyuz Seats from Boeing with Options Through 2019 if Commercial Crew Is Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 11:19 PM)

NASA has purchased two seats with an option for three more on Russian Soyuz spacecraft through Boeing to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  One seat each in 2017 and 2018 will allow a fourth U.S.-sponsored astronaut to fly to the ISS while Russia reduces its own crew complement.  The three options are for 2019 in case the new U.S. commercial crew systems, one of which is being built by Boeing, are not ready by then.  The options must be exercised by the fall of this year.

Boeing gained the ability to make seats on Soyuz available to NASA as part of an agreement with the Russian company Energia to settle outstanding financial issues related to the Sea Launch program.  Sea Launch was a U.S. (Boeing)-Russian (Energia)-Ukrainian (Yuzhonye) -Norwegian (Kvaerner) company that launched rockets from a converted mobile oil platform at sea. The platform was based in Long Beach, CA and towed to a location close to the equator to launch satellites in geostationary orbit (which is located above the equator).  Boeing was the major shareholder initially, but launch failures led to the company declaring bankruptcy in 2009 and Russia's Energia took majority ownership in 2010.  Sea Launch utilized Ukraine's Zenit booster and the disrupted Russian-Ukrainian relationship following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 added to the company's woes.  A Russian venture, S7 Group, is buying Sea Launch, but Boeing and Energia needed to reach a financial settlement first.  Energia builds the Soyuz spacecraft and the five seats were made available to Boeing as part of the settlement. 

In a FedBizOpps solicitation on January 17, 2017, NASA announced its intent to buy the seats via a modification of its existing Vehicle Sustaining Engineering Contract with Boeing.

NASA has not been able to launch astronauts into space since the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011.  Under the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs the ISS partnership, the United States is responsible for transporting astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to and from ISS.  The IGA was signed at a time when NASA anticipated that the space shuttle would be available throughout the ISS's operational lifetime.

Without the shuttle, NASA must rely on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport as well as on-orbit lifeboat services so the crew can escape in an emergency.  The size of the resident ISS crew is limited in large part by the number that can be evacuated in an emergency.  Two Soyuzes are usually docked and each can accommodate three people, hence the current six-person limit.

NASA is prohibited from paying Russia for anything associated with the ISS program under the terms of the Iran-North Korean-Syria Non-proliferation Act (INKSNA), however, so must obtain a waiver to the law from Congress whenever it needs to contract with Russia for ISS-related services.  INKSNA applies whether the arrangement is through NASA itself or a U.S. company on behalf of NASA.

A waiver enacted in 2013 allows NASA to purchase ISS-related services from Russia through December 31, 2020 (P.L. 112-273, the Space Exploration Sustainability Act).   In 2015, NASA signed its most recent contract with Russia for six seats and associated training and other support services.  They will accommodate U.S. and partner astronauts traveling to the ISS through the end of 2018 with a final return in the spring of 2019. 

By 2019, NASA hoped that the new commercial crew systems being developed by SpaceX (Crew Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100 Starliner) would be operational.  As noted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this month, however, it is not certain that those companies will be ready by then.  GAO's report was released on February 16 and called on NASA to provide a contingency plan in case the commercial crew systems are not ready as planned.  NASA agreed to provide such a plan by March 13. 

Five days later, on February 21, NASA posted an article on an ISS research website announcing its purchase of the seats through Boeing.  The agency did not issue a press release. The article explained the advantages of having four U.S.-sponsored crew members aboard ISS in 2017 and 2018 and the flexibility if the commercial crew systems are delayed.

Usually there are three Russians and three U.S.-sponsored crew aboard ISS. The U.S.-sponsored crew members typically include two Americans and one representative from  Europe, Canada or Japan.  Budget constraints in Russia led its space agency, Roscosmos, to temporarily cut back the Russian crew complement from three to two in order to reduce resupply requirements.  Since six people are usually aboard, if only two are Russian, four U.S.-sponsored crew members can be accommodated.

NASA is anxious to increase the number of crew available to conduct scientific research on ISS.  With three U.S.-sponsored crew members available, it strives to spend a total of 35 hours per week on research.  Four will increase how much research can be conducted.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said via email that NASA paid $491 million to Russia for the six Soyuz seats it acquired in 2015, which includes training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue as well as limited crew cargo delivery to and from the ISS.  That is approximately $81.8 million per seat including the additional services.

Purchasing the Boeing seats increased the Vehicle Sustaining Engineering contract value by $373.5 million, Schierholz said.  That yields a price per seat of $74.7 million.

House Vote on NASA Authorization Bill Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 08:34 PM)

Despite the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 appearing on the list of legislation scheduled for consideration by the House today on the House Majority Leader's website, it was not, in fact, brought up for a vote.  The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate on February 17 after extensive negotiations between the House and Senate dating back to last year. Its inclusion on the House's suspension calendar -- used for noncontroversial legislation -- suggested it had an easy path to passage. 

Varying views exist on what happened to cause the vote's sudden postponement as well as the implications for the future of the bill.  Throughout much of today, the House Majority Leader's website sent conflicting messages, with S. 442 included on one list of legislation scheduled for consideration today, but omitted from another.

This is the first NASA authorization act to get this far since 2010.   Its purpose is to codify congressional intent with regard to NASA's future during a presidential transition in order to avoid the type of disruption that occurred when President Obama cancelled the George W. Bush Administration's Constellation program.  It is a very broad bill,146 pages in length, that addresses all of NASA's activities except earth science.  That is one of the few NASA topics that creates partisan discord and to advance the bill, earth science is simply omitted.

Three sections are cited as having raised flags at the White House and/or the Department of Justice as needing further review: 303, 305 and 702.  Section 303 requires NASA to produce an "ISS transition plan" to move from the government-operated International Space Station to a regime where NASA is only one of many customers of a low Earth orbit commercial human spaceflight enterprise; Section 305 provides government indemnification for commercial launch and reentry services provided to NASA that are unusually hazardous (presumably including carrying crews) or nuclear in nature; and Section 702 concerns space technology investments.

Some sources are optimistic that this is a temporary problem that will soon be resolved.  Others think is an indication that certain parties want to sink the legislation permanently. What happens next is unclear.   Stay tuned.  [SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request summarizes the bill as it passed the Senate.]

What's Happening in Space Policy February 27-March 3, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 09:03 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 27-March 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The week starts off tomorrow (Monday) with two important votes, one in the House and one in the Senate.

The House will vote on the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act.  The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate on February 17.   It is being brought up on the suspension calendar, which is used for non-controversial legislation, making its passage all but assured.  It then would go the President for signature.  President Trump's position on NASA is unclear.  Perhaps this legislation will give the White House an opportunity to signal its intentions.  Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually appropriate any funding.  The key will be if the Trump White House agrees with the overall goals as set out in the bill.  The House meets for legislative business at 2:00 pm ET, with votes postponed until 6:00 pm ET.  [UPDATE, February 27:  The bill apparently has been pulled from consideration today.]

Also on Monday, the Senate will vote on the confirmation of Wilbur Ross to be the new Secretary of Commerce and therefore in charge of NOAA.  As part of his confirmation process, he vowed that "science should be left to the scientists" and NOAA should continue to conduct climate change research and monitoring.  His nomination has been less controversial than other Trump nominees.  The vote is scheduled for 7:00 pm ET.

Trump will have an opportunity to say something about the space program when he speaks at to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night at 9:00 pm ET.  We haven't heard any rumors that any aspect of space activities will be mentioned, but one never knows.  He did have a sentence in his inaugural address that said "We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow."  But there has been nothing else from the Trump White House itself about the space program.

NASA is holding the "Planetary Science Vision 2050" Workshop Monday-Wednesday at NASA Headquarters. The purpose is to look at a longer term future than what is considered by the 10-year Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  The workshop will identify science goals and enabling technologies that can be implemented by the end of the 2040s to support the next phase of solar system exploration.  So many people responded that NASA is limiting in-person participation to invited panelists and oral/poster presenters.  Everyone else can participate virtually.

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

Monday, February 27

Monday-Wednesday, February 27-March 1

Tuesday, February 28

 

Events of Interest

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

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