SpacePolicyOnline.com Latest News
UPDATE, December 15, 2015, 8:50 pm EST: The crew successfully docked with ISS a bit later than expected because of a problem with the Kurs automated docking system. Soyuz TMA-19M commander Yuri Malenchenko took manual control of the docking and it took place at 12:33 pm EST (instead of 12:24 pm EST). The hatches between Soyuz and ISS opened, and the new crew members entered ISS, at 2:58 pm EST.
UPDATE, December 15, 2015, 6:15 am EST: Launch took place on time at 6:03 am EST. Soyuz TMA-19M is now in orbit and on its way to a docking with the ISS in about 6 hours at 12:24 pm EST.
ORIGINAL STORY, December 14, 2015: Three new International Space Station (ISS) crew members are set to launch tomorrow morning, December 15, to join three others already aboard the ISS. One is the first astronaut sponsored by the government of the United Kingdom (UK), which released its first national space policy yesterday.
UK astronaut Tim Peake will fly to the ISS on Soyuz TMA-19M along with NASA astronaut Tim Kopra and Rocosmos cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko. The UK is a member of the European Space Agency (ESA) and Peake is a member of the ESA astronaut corps.
Launch is scheduled for 6:03 am Eastern Standard Time (5:03 pm local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan) and the spacecraft will dock with the ISS at approximately 12:24 pm EST. The three new ISS crew members are replacing three who returned to Earth on Friday and will join NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Roscosmos cosmonauts Mikhail Kornienko and Sergei Volkov. Kelly and Kornienko are more than half-way through a year-long stint aboard the ISS that began in March; Volkov arrived in September.
Peake is the first person to fly into space as a representative of the British government. He is not the first British citizen to make a spaceflight, however. That honor belongs to Helen Sharman who visited Russia's Mir space station in 1991 as a space "tourist." Three men born in Britain have flown as NASA astronauts after becoming U.S. citizens (Michael Foale, Piers Sellers and Nicholas Patrick) and a South African space tourist (Mark Shuttleworth) has dual citizenship in Britain.
Britain is heralding Peake as its first astronaut, however, and its decision to sponsor an astronaut as part of ESA's astronaut corps does mark a change from its previous focus on space applications, especially remote sensing of the Earth. Britain is one of 11 European countries that are officially part of the ISS program, having signed the original Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs the ISS program in 1988 and a revised version in 1998 that brought Russia into the program. It did not financially contribute to the program for many years, however, so the number of European members of the ISS program is variously listed as 10 or 11.
In any event, the UK government appears to have warmed up to the value of human spaceflight and more broadly to space activities. Yesterday it issued its first national space policy whose opening words are "Space matters." The report asserts that in 2014 "the UK space sector directly contributed £11.8 billion to the UK economy and employed nearly 35,000 skilled workers." The 14-page document says little about the UK's plans for future human spaceflight, although the forward by the UK Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills refers to Peake's flight as part of the UK's role in exploration that will deliver cutting edge science and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.
A key Member of Congress and two congressional staff expounded on congressional intent in the recently enacted commercial space law at a space law and policy conference in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday. The law's provisions regarding property rights to materials mined from asteroids were center stage and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) left no doubt that he does not want any international organization regulating those activities, but that does not rule out international discussions.
Babin provided the opening keynote at the 10th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law on December 9. The asteroid mining provisions are controversial in the space law community because the 1967 Outer Space Treaty prohibits countries that adhere to the Treaty ("States parties") from claiming sovereignty over the Moon or other celestial bodies. It also requires States parties to authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, such as companies, making the governments internationally responsible for what they do in space. Supporters of the law point out that no sovereignty claims are made to celestial bodies, only property rights to materials mined from them, and the law fulfills U.S. obligations to authorize and supervise what U.S. companies are doing in space.
Babin stressed that the new U.S. law does not support the idea of any international body regulating space resource mining. Instead, he expects the legal regime to "evolve naturally" over time with the advent of other nations' domestic laws and development of customary practice. The U.S. State Department, he said, could engage diplomatically with other countries as they develop their own laws that support "mutual recognition of space resource rights," but he emphatically rejected allowing any "international body to govern space resource mining." Other countries might want to do that, he argued, in order to "impede" U.S. companies by establishing a "burdensome yoke of an international body around the neck of U.S. innovation. While there is certainly a place for the U.S. to engage internationally, those efforts should focus on mutually beneficial arrangements. "
During a panel discussion later in the day, Tom Hammond, Republican staff director of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, which Babin chairs, reiterated that Babin's objection is to an international body regulating such activities, not to an international agreement. He stressed that the law only sets forth U.S. policy.
Hammond's Senate Democratic counterpart, Nick Cummings, agreed, saying that they knew discussions were underway in the academic and international communities and "we did not want to set those discussions back. ...We want those discussions to happen." Cummings works for Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, who was instrumental in getting the bill through the Senate.
International discussions involving the five U.N. space treaties usually take place through the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), which are led for the United States by the State Department. The State Department did not reply by press time to a query as to whether it plans to raise property rights in space at the 2016 meetings of COPUOS and its two subcommittees -- the Scientific and Technical Subcommittee, which meets in February, and the Legal Subcommittee, which meets in April. The full COPUOS meets in June.
Here's our list of upcoming space policy events (updated December 14 to add a link to the list of AGU sessions that will be livestreamed). This version covers the three weeks between now and the end of the year as the number of events dwindles and thoughts turn to holidays and fresh beginnings. The House and Senate will meet this week at least. If they fail to reach agreement on an FY2016 appropriations bill, they might be back next week.
During the Weeks
In Washington, everyone is awaiting congressional agreement on a full-year omnibus appropriations bill that will fund the government through the end of FY2016 (September 30, 2016). Congress extended the existing Continuing Resolution (CR) now funding the government from December 11 to December 16 in the hope that the extra 5 days is enough for negotiators to reach a compromise on what policy provisions (riders) are included. The goal is for the bill to be introduced tomorrow (Monday) and voted on three days later (Wednesday), giving House members three days to read the bill. The House has a rule that three days notice is required, but it is often bypassed. New House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) wants the House to return to "regular order" -- following the rules -- so if the bill is not introduced tomorrow, the date for a vote could slip. Congress may, in fact, keep extending the CR for short or long periods of time. As members of the appropriations committees point out, it is a wasteful and inefficient way to run a government (not only can new programs not begin, but existing programs cannot be terminated under a CR), so many are motivated to reach an agreement. We'll see what happens.
Meanwhile, the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference is taking place at the Moscone Center in San Francisco this week. It is always a great venue for breaking news in the earth and planetary science fields and features top level industry, academic and government leaders. For example, Elon Musk is scheduled to be there on Tuesday morning (10:10-11:00 am Pacific Time). Al Gore was just added to the program for a Town Hall meeting on Wednesday at 12:30 pm Pacific Time on "The Earth from a Million Miles: Advancing Earth Observations from L1." Gore was the initiator of what is now known as the DSCOVR program (originally called Triana), which was finally launched in February after years in political purgatory. It is now at Sun-Earth L1 sending back scientific data and the daily views of Earth that Gore sought. UPDATE: Many of the AGU general sessions, Town Halls, and press conferences will be livestreamed and/or archived on the AGU YouTube channel. A list is posted on the conference website with links. Note that all times are Pacific Standard Time (add three for Eastern).
Musk has quite a schedule this week. He'll be at AGU on Tuesday and on Wednesday SpaceX will hold a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will be used to launch 11 ORBCOMM OG-2 satellites "about three days later" if all goes well. This will be the first Falcon 9 launch since the June 28, 2015 failure and the beginning of a series of four missions the company plans to launch in the next two months.
The last of those four will be the next SpaceX cargo launch to the ISS, SpaceX-8 (SpX-8). NASA will say only that its internal plans call for a launch in "February." There will be six ISS crew members awaiting those supplies. Three just returned on Friday and three more will launch on Tuesday, restoring the facility to its typical crew complement of six.
So this will be a very busy week, but if Congress gets the appropriations bill done, a two-week respite should follow.
Here are all the events we know about as of Sunday morning. Check back during the week for anything added to our Events of Interest list as the days progress.
Monday, December 14
Monday-Friday, December 14-18
Tuesday, December 15
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 15-16
Wednesday-Friday, December 16-18
Saturday, December 19
SpaceX will launch four Falcon 9 missions from two coasts in two months if tentative plans coming into focus today prove out. It all begins with a December 16 static fire test of the rocket for the ORBCOMM launch. If that goes well, ORBCOMM's satellites will launch around December 19, followed by SES-9 and Jason-3 in mid-January, and SpaceX CRS-8 (SpX-8) in February.
SpaceX and ORBCOMM announced the plans for the launch of 11 ORBCOMM OG-2 satellites yesterday. Their destination is low Earth orbit (LEO). SES also announced yesterday that its SES-9 communications satellite arrived at Cape Canveral for launch in "mid-January." It is headed to geostationary orbit.
Today, NASA and NOAA announced that the much-delayed Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite is now scheduled for launch on January 17, 2016 at 10:42 am Pacific Time (1:42 pm Eastern) from Vandenberg Air Force Base. It will be placed into a high inclination (66.05 degree) orbit. Its launch had been scheduled for July 22, 2015, but was delayed due to thruster contamination and then by SpaceX's Falcon 9 failure on June 28.
SpaceX is recovering from that failure, which destroyed a Dragon cargo capsule full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) launched as part of the company's Commercial Resuppply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. It was SpaceX's seventh operational CRS launch, SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7. A failed strut in the Falcon 9 upper stage is thought to be the cause.
NASA's Stephanie Schierholz told SpacePolicyOnline.com via email this afternoon that NASA is working toward a "no earlier than" (NET) February 2016 date for the next SpaceX cargo mission to ISS. ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman said last week that January 8 was the NET date, but he conveyed that it was dependent on a number of factors. One is NASA's desire to conduct a spacewalk to replace a failed part on the ISS exterior. January 12-18 is an opportune time to do that, Schierholz said, and "[w]orking toward a February launch date for [SpaceX] CRS-8 affords both NASA and SpaceX important opportunities in preparation for launch."
The NASA statement adds that "We're excited for this historic [SpX-8] mission to bring the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM), which was developed under a public private partnership, to the ISS as a commercial vehicle and continue paving exciting new paths of innovation and cooperation for both NASA and the space industry."
SpaceX is proceeding cautiously in its return-to-flight strategy in that it chose the ORBCOMM launch to go first, instead of SES. The ORBCOMM satellites need to go only to low Earth orbit, which does not require a second firing of the second stage as would be needed to reach geostationary orbit. On the other hand, these next four launches present a challenging cadence that will test the rocket (which is being upgraded at the same time) in several regimes: three launches from Cape Canaveral and one from Vandenberg, placing satellites into low Earth orbit, geostationary orbit, and two different high-inclination orbits (66.05 degrees for Jason-3 and 51.6 degrees for the ISS cargo mission), all in about two months. The company additionally plans to continue its attempts to return one or more of the Falcon 9 first stages to Earth to demonstrate reusability, perhaps landing back at Cape Canaveral if it can get the required approvals.
Congress passed a 5-day extension to the deadline for funding the government for the rest of the fiscal year today. The bill, H.R. 2250, passed the House by voice vote. The Senate passed it yesterday.
The bill in its current from is short and to the point, simply replacing the date of December 11 with December 16 in the previously-enacted FY2016 Continuing Resolution (CR). H.R. 2250 is being used as the legislative vehicle for the CR-extension. As introduced, it was on an unrelated topic, but was in a useful stage of the legislative process to move forward quickly. The Senate struck all the language in the original bill and replaced it with the extension to December 16.
House and Senate Republicans and Democrats continue to negotiate over a wide range of controversial policy provisions -- riders -- that have held up final agreement on the funding bill. It is anticipated that they will reach agreement on a single bill that consolidates all 12 regular appropriations bills -- an "omnibus" appropriations -- to fund the government through September 30, 2016, but that is not a foregone conclusion. They could simply pass another short term extension.
But the good news is that today, at least, there will not be a government shutdown for lack of funds. The President still needs to sign the legislation; that should take place in the next several hours.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chair of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA, insists that NASA did not comply with the law when it participated in a State Department-led bilateral meeting with China in September 2015. He previously said he would "vigorously enforce" that law.
SpacePolicyOnline.com asked Culberson late yesterday afternoon if he wanted to respond to the release of two letters to him from NASA prior to the meeting with China that provides information and certifications required by the law. SpacePolicyOnline.com obtained the letters through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the agency and published them last evening. Culberson was not able to respond by press time yesterday, but did so this morning.
Via email, Culberson said:
“We have had a strict prohibition in the CJS bill for several years to prevent NASA from cooperating or sharing information with the People’s Liberation Army controlled Chinese space program. The notice NASA sent the committee was vague and did not disclose the details of the discussions held in Beijing on September 28, 2015.”
As reported yesterday, the law dates back to when Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) chaired the subcommittee and instituted prohibitions on NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which is also funded in the CJS bill, on any type of activity related to bilateral civil space cooperation with China. Culberson succeeded Wolf as subcommittee chairman and shares his views on this topic. He led the effort to include Sec. 532 in the NASA's FY2015 appropriations law.
The law states that NASA may not spend any funds to "develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by law enacted after the date of enactment of this Act." Those limitations do not apply if "no later than 30 days prior to the activity in question," NASA certifies that the activity poses no risk of the transfer of "technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications" and does not "involve knowing interactions with officials who have been determined by the United States to have direct involvement with violations of human rights." Any such certification "shall include a description of the purpose of the activity, its agenda, its major participants, and its location and timing."
The first of the two NASA letters provided to SpacePolicyOnline.com under the FOIA request was signed by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on July 31, 2015, well within the 30 day notification period in law. It made the requisite certifications, but provided little detail. The second letter, from NASA CFO David Radzanowski to Culberson, was signed on September 16. It provided more details and repeated the certifications, but missed the 30-day advance notice deadline for the September 28 meeting in Beijing and also revealed that NASA held a bilateral meeting with the Chinese in Washington on September 23. To comply with the law, the notifications to Congress presumably should have been submitted 30 days before September 23, not the 28th.
Culberson told SpacePolicyOnline.com in October that he would "vigorously enforce" the law's provisions. Whether anything will be included in the final FY2016 appropriations bill now in its final stages of negotiations remains to be seen. Earlier today Congress passed a 5-day extension for government funding. December 16 is the new deadline for agreement on a full year appropriations bill that consolidates funding for all discretionary government activities, including NASA.
In response to a SpacePolicyOnline.com FOIA request, NASA today provided two letters that it sent to Rep. John Culberson prior to a September 28, 2015 bilateral meeting with China to discuss civil space cooperation. Culberson said in October that the information he received did not have sufficient depth and scope to comply with a law limiting NASA's bilateral interactions with China.
Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who once chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA, included language in NASA's appropriations bills sharply limiting NASA's involvement with China. They also limit White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) interaction with China on space cooperation. OSTP is also funded in the CJS bill.
Wolf was succeeded by Culberson as chair of the subcommittee. He holds similar views regarding space cooperation with China and has included the same language in recent appropriations legislation.
Section 532 of the FY2015 appropriations law (P.L. 113-235) states that NASA may not spend any funds to "develop, design, plan, promulgate, implement or execute a bilateral policy, program, order, or contract of any kind to participate, collaborate, or coordinate bilaterally in any way with China or any Chinese-owned company unless such activities are specifically authorized by law enacted after the date of enactment of this Act." Those limitations do not apply if "no later than 30 days prior to the activity in question," NASA certifies that the activity poses no risk of the transfer of "technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications" and does not "involve knowing interactions with officials who have been determined by the United States to have direct involvement with violations of human rights." Any such certification "shall include a description of the purpose of the activity, its agenda, its major participants, and its location and timing."
The State Department announced in June that it was initiating a "U.S.-China Civil Space Cooperation Dialogue" and the first meeting would be in September 2015. The meeting took place on September 28 in Beijing.
Culberson told SpacePolicyOnline.com in October that NASA did not provide his committee with sufficient "details on the depth and scope" of the meeting and he would "vigorously enforce" the law.
NASA initially declined to provide copies of any communications it had with Culberson about the meeting. SpacePolicyOnline.com filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with the agency for "all correspondence between NASA and the House Appropriations Committee in August or September 2015 in which NASA makes the certifications required by law regarding bilateral interactions with China with respect to space cooperation in conjunction with the meeting held in China on that topic in late September 2015."
Today NASA provided SpacePolicyOnline.com with two such letters. The first was sent by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden on July 31 notifying Culberson that NASA would participate in the State Department-led meeting and making the required certifications. The second was signed by NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski on September 16 restating the certifications and providing an agenda for the meeting in Beijing on September 28, as well as an earlier meeting at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. on September 23. The Radzanowski letter references a July 22 letter from Bolden to Culberson, but NASA did not provide that in response to SpacePolicyOnline.com's FOIA request. It predated the July 31 letter that NASA did provide. (Our original request for all correspondence between NASA and the committee in August or September 2015 related to the meeting with China was rejected because it was not specific enough, so we resubmitted it asking for letters where the required certifications were made.)
The Bolden letter was well within the 30-day time limit specified in the law and provided the requisite certifications, but little detail. The Radzanowski letter provided an agenda, list of Chinese participants, location and timing, but was not sent within that time limit.
Rep. Culberson had not responded by press time to a SpacePolicyOnline.com request for any additional comment he might want to make about the information he believes was missing from NASA's communications prior to the meeting.
UPDATE, December 11, 2015: Soyuz TMA-17M landed successfully, although weather conditions at the landing site were very poor and confirmation of landing did not occur until many minutes after the scheduled landing time of 8:12 am EST. Recovery forces are using an expedited procedure to get the crew out of the capsule and onto helicopters.
ORIGINAL STORY, December 10, 2015: Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members are preparing to return to Earth early tomorrow (Friday) morning Eastern Standard Time (EST). NASA's Kjell Lindgren, JAXA's Kimiya Yui and Roscosmos's Oleg Kononenko are scheduled to land in Kazakhstan at 8:12 am EST.
The three men launched to the ISS aboard Soyuz TMA-17M on July 22, 2015, giving them almost 5 months on orbit.
Three more crew members will be launched next Tuesday to replace them on Soyuz TMA-19M. That crew includes the first British astronaut sponsored by the British government, Tim Peake.
He is not the first Briton in space, however. Helen Sharman achieved that distinction in 1991 when she flew to Russia's Mir space station as a "tourist." Other people who were born in Britain, but became U.S. citizens before joining the NASA astronaut corps, also have flown. The British government's decision to support a British astronaut as part of the European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut corps is generally seen as an indication that the British government has a more positive view of human exploration than in the past (where space applications has been the predominant theme).
SpaceX announced today that it will conduct a static fire test of the Falcon 9 rocket that will be used to launch 11 ORBCOMM OG2 satellites on December 16. If all goes well, the launch will take place "about three days later" or December 19. This will be the first flight of Falcon 9 since its June 28, 2015 launch failure.
Falcon 9 is the only SpaceX rocket currently available and is used for launches of a variety of commercial and government spacecraft, including cargo launches to the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA. It was one of those missions, SpaceX CRS-7, or SpX-7, that failed in June. It was launching a Dragon capsule loaded with supplies for the ISS crew.
SpaceX had successfully launched six such operational missions to the ISS previously, including two in 2015, as part of NASA's Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. Under the contract, SpaceX and its competitor, Orbital ATK, each are to launch 20 tons of supplies to ISS by the end of 2016. Both companies also received additional launch contracts for 2017 and are vying for more business under NASA's CRS2 contract solicitation. NASA has delayed announcement of the CRS2 contract winners several times already; the current plan is to award those contracts on January 30, 2016.
Orbital ATK also suffered a failure under the CRS contract and just returned its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to flight this weekend, but using a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket instead of its own Antares. It is still getting Antares ready to fly again using different engines. The first flight is currently expected in May 2016.
SpaceX is taking a cautious approach in Falcon 9's return to flight. Initially the plan was to launch an SES communications satellite to geostationary orbit on the return-to-flight mission, but that would require a second firing of the Falcon 9's second (or upper) stage. It was the second stage that failed in June. SpaceX decided to launch the ORBCOMM satellites first because they need to go only into low Earth orbit and a second firing is not necessary.
The exact order of SpaceX's next three launches remains a bit unclear. ORBCOMM will be first, but whether SES or the next NASA mission, SpX-8, will be second has not been formally announced. SES's satellite, SES-9, arrived at Cape Canaveral today to be ready for a mid-January launch. NASA ISS Program Director, Kirk Shireman, said last week that January 8 is the earliest that SpX-8 will fly, but that is not a firm date.
ORBCOMM's press release conveyed that its launch date is dependent on the outcome of the December 16 static fire test: "Once the static fire is completed to verify the readiness of the Falcon 9 rocket, ORBCOMM's second OG2 Mission is targeted to launch about three days later between 8:00 PM and 9:00 pm ET." This is second and final launch of ORBCOMM's second generation satellite constellation, OG2, for machine-to-machine communications that allow companies to remotely track, monitor and control fixed and mobile assets from trucks to oil platforms to ships.
SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk tweeted the news:
SpaceX also is trying to land the Falcon 9's first stage back on Earth. To date, attempted "landings" have been just above the ocean or on autonomous drone ships (which many people refer to as a barge, but barges do not have motors and these do), but the goal is to land them back at Cape Canaveral and SpaceX may attempt that with at least one of these missions if it can get the needed approvals.
House Appropriations Chairman Hal Rogers (R-KY) today introduced a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating for 5 more days past the Friday deadline when the current CR expires. The hope is that work can be completed on a bill that will fund it for the rest of FY2016 by early next week.
FY2016 began on October 1 and Congress should have passed 12 regular appropriations bills by then to pay for defense and non-defense discretionary federal government activities including DOD, NASA and NOAA. None of those bills cleared Congress and a CR was enacted instead to keep agencies operating at FY2015 levels until agreement could be reached. That CR expires on Friday, December 11.
A budget deal reached at the end of October between the White House and Congress cleared the way for agreement on spending levels, but policy provisions -- "riders" -- continue to hold up final action. It is expected that all 12 bills will be combined into a single consolidated or "omnibus" appropriations bill that provides funding through the end of the fiscal year on September 30, 2016.
The decision to introduce another short-term CR can be viewed as good news in the sense that it indicates all sides may be close to an agreement if given just a few more days, though critics would argue that sufficient time has passed that they should have been able to get the job done by Friday.
The bill, H.J. Res. 75, would fund government operations at their current level though Wednesday, December 16. Rogers said in a statement that it is his "hope and expectation that a final, full-year bill will be enacted before this new deadline."
Events of Interest