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House Approves RD-180 Replacement Appropriation As U.S. Readies More Russia Sanctions

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jun-2014 (Updated: 20-Jun-2014 04:31 PM)

The House passed the FY2015 defense appropriations bill today (June 20) with the $220 million added to begin building a replacement for Russia's RD-180 rocket engines intact.  Also today, the Obama Administration imposed sanctions against seven Ukrainians and, along with Europe, is readying other sanctions aimed at specific Russian economic sectors including defense.

The availability of RD-180 engines for the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket has come into question since the deterioration of relationships with Russia because of its actions in Ukraine.  The House now has passed both a FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, H.R. 4435) and a companion FY2015 defense appropriations bill (H.R. 4870) that provide $220 million for the Air Force to begin a program to develop a U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace the RD-180.  The White House disapproves of the additional funding, arguing that it is premature to commit that much money while options on how best to obtain a new U.S. engine are still being evaluated, but there seems to be agreement that a new U.S engine is needed to end America's reliance on Russia.   The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) also wants a U.S.-built engine and recommended $100 million in its version of the FY2015 NDAA (S. 2410).  SASC also adopted a McCain amendment that prohibits the purchase of additional RD-180 engines after the current contract expires.

U.S. national space policy requires that the government support two families of launch vehicles to ensure access to space, especially for national security satellites, in case one experiences a long hiatus because of a failure.  The Atlas V is one of the two (Delta IV is the other).  NASA and NOAA also use Atlas V and two of the three competitors for NASA's commercial crew program (Boeing and Sierra Nevada) plan to launch their spacecraft using the Atlas V.

ULA insists that it is "business as usual" with Energomash, the Russian company that manufactures the RD-180s.  The question is whether the evolving situation in Ukraine and potential sanctions against Russia's defense sector could disrupt that relationship.   ULA President Michael Gass said on Wednesday that the company is positioning itself to be able to respond to any eventuality.

Major media outlets including the New York Times report that a "senior administration official" briefed them today that the United States and Europe are readying tougher sanctions targeted against Russia's finance, energy and defense sectors because of continued Russian involvement in Ukraine.   According to the reports, the administration is accusing Russia of covertly arming Ukrainian separatists and redeploying "significant' Russian troops along the Ukrainian border despite a cease-fire declared by Ukraine today and ongoing negotiations between Moscow and Kiev on a peace plan.  The U.S. Treasury Department today imposed sanctions against seven Ukrainians who are viewed as separatist leaders.

Details of the potential sanctions against Russia's economic sectors have not been made public.   President Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned Russian President Putin earlier this month that he risked tougher sanctions if Russia did not withdraw Russian troops from the Ukrainian border and end its support for Ukrainian separatists.  Although Russia initially withdrew some of it troops, they reportedly now are redeploying.

Senate Appropriations Process Hits a Snag, Minibus Derailed for Now

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jun-2014 (Updated: 19-Jun-2014 11:58 PM)

Optimism about completing congressional action on at least some FY2015 appropriations bills earlier than usual hit a wall today (June 19) when the Senate postponed action on a set of three appropriations bills, including those that fund NASA, NOAA and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  Substantive issues underlie the disagreement, but they are unrelated to the space program and are being manifested in procedural moves.

Since last week, the Senate has been debating the Motion to Proceed to consideration of H.R. 4660, the House-passed FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill.   The Senate plans to replace the language passed by the House with an “amendment in the nature of a substitute” – amendment 3244 – incorporating the texts of three appropriations bills that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee – the CJS bill (which includes NASA and NOAA), the Transportation-HUD bill (which includes the FAA), and the Agriculture bill.  The combined bill is referred to as a “minibus,” a somewhat joking reference to a smaller version of an “omnibus” appropriations bill that typically groups all 12 regular appropriations bills together.

The issue is how the Senate will deal with amendments to the minibus.  The two parties have been at loggerheads for years over what amendments are allowed to be offered during floor debate and whether the amendments can be adopted by majority vote (51 of the 100 votes in the Senate) or if a 60-vote margin is required.

The current breakdown of the Senate is 53 Democrats, two Independents who usually vote with Democrats, and 45 Republicans.  An amendment sponsored by Republicans needs to attract just six Democratic votes to win under the majority rule, but 15 if the 60-vote rule is in effect.  Conversely, an amendment sponsored by Democrats can pass with support only from other Democrats under majority rule, but requires five Republicans to join them under the 60-vote rule.

Logically, that would mean Democrats would want decisions based on majority vote on the assumption they can get the vast majority of their own party members to vote in favor of Democratic amendments, while Republicans would favor a 60-vote threshold to force Democrats to find at least five Republicans to join them.   Indeed, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has argued for the 60-vote threshold in the past.

Today, however, he and other Republicans were insisting that amendments to the minibus be able to pass with only 51 votes while Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) was arguing for the 60-vote threshold.

Divining the intricacies of Senate politics is a treacherous undertaking best left to those with that expertise rather than space policy.   However, Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA), who chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, took to the floor today to say that the real issue is that Republicans want to offer amendments that would repeal the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act.  Indeed, in its Statement of Administration (SAP) policy on the bill, the White House warned against attempts to “advance ideological riders, which the President has made clear are unacceptable.”

The bottom line is that action on the minibus is stalled until the two parties can reach agreement on how to proceed.  A timeline for such an agreement is impossible to forecast.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), the top Republican on the committee, have been striving to restore “regular order” to the appropriations process.  Mikulski said on the floor that she was “sad” with what happened today because it will delay funding for many critical programs and hopes that the appropriations process “does not die today.”

Meanwhile, Senators have been making statements about the bill on the Senate floor while the Motion to Proceed has been under consideration.  A NASA issue of particular interest is language inserted in the CJS bill by Shelby, who also is the top Republican on the CJS subcommittee, requiring commercial crew contractors to abide by accounting practices usually required for cost-plus government contracts rather than firm fixed-price contracts.  Opponents refer to it as a “poison pill” that will add cost to the program and is particularly disadvantageous to small companies (like SpaceX) that do not have large cadres of personnel experienced in conforming to such regulations.  Advocates insist that it adds transparency and will help avoid cost overruns.

Yesterday (June 18), Shelby, a long-standing critic of the commercial crew program, defended the language on the Senate floor saying its intent was “not to up-end a fixed-price contract: rather the goal is to make certain that the price NASA has agreed to pay for vehicle development matches actual development expenditures. NASA and its contractors have a history of cost overruns and schedule delays ... [and] I believe we cannot find ourselves at the eleventh hour with an overburdened program that requires a bailout to succeed.”   For his part, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee that authorizes NASA’s activities and supports commercial crew, said he wants to work with Mikulski and Shelby as the bill is conferenced with the House “to make sure that we have the right mix of oversight and innovation in how NASA contracts for this competition.”

Space-Based Systems Enhance Maritime Domain Awareness Say SWF Panelists

Marcia S. Smith and Len Ly
Posted: 19-Jun-2014 (Updated: 19-Jun-2014 03:01 PM)

Five experts explained the utility of space-based systems to enhance Maritime Domain Awareness (MDA) at a June 16, 2014 panel discussion hosted by the Secure World Foundation (SWF).

SWF Washington Office Director Victoria Samson explained that MDA is defined as “effective understanding of anything associated with the maritime domain that could impact security, safety, economy, and environment.”  MDA relies on a layered set of terrestrial, air-borne, and space-borne systems.

The panelists focused on the role of satellites in MDA, including optical and radar imaging satellites, especially Canada’s Radarsat-2, as well as satellites that carry receivers for the Automatic Identification System (AIS) created by the International Maritime Organization (IMO).

AIS transmitters provide a ship’s identity, location, speed, direction, and other data.   IMO regulations require AIS equipment to be aboard cargo ships of certain sizes that travel in international waters and on all passenger ships. Individual countries may have additional AIS regulations governing their coastal waters.  AIS itself is a terrestrial VHF system, but as panelist Guy Thomas explained, satellites in low Earth orbit (LEO) are able to pick up AIS transmissions, leading to Satellite-AIS (S-AIS).

Thomas, co-founder of the C-SIGMA Centre, calls S-AIS the “game-changer” for its ability to “locate the good guys” and permit pattern-based analysis.   The idea is that the “good guys” allow themselves to be identified through AIS so when authorities are looking for the “bad guys,” the ships transmitting on AIS can be eliminated from the target list.  AIS was created as a collision avoidance and traffic management tool, he said, but it has expanded into many other uses including environmental protection, maritime resource protection, safety, commodities trading, and route planning.

The idea for S-AIS emanated from the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.   At the time, Thomas was the Johns Hopkins liaison to the Naval War College and tasked to assist the Navy evaluate its maritime security.   He learned the United States lacked ways to detect ships off the coast, with the exception of warships, which have a unique signature.  For all the other maritime vessels, he was convinced that the AIS signals could be picked up by appropriately equipped satellites in LEO.

“I discovered that [at that time] there was only one satellite system in the world that met my requirements -- ORBCOMM,” Thomas said.  He approached ORBCOMM with the idea and in 2006 six satellites equipped with AIS receivers, one of which was funded by the U.S. Coast Guard, were launched.  S-AIS “has been used dramatically in many different ways now,” he said and is provided by ORBCOMM as a commercial service (the Coast Guard no longer funds the satellite receivers, but does buy services).  Additional AIS-equipped ORBCOMM satellites have been launched since and six more are awaiting launch at Cape Canaveral on SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.  The launch is currently scheduled for Friday (June 20).

John Mittleman, an engineer at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, pointed out, however, that despite the IMO regulations, AIS and other types of terrestrial ship-board transmissions that provide location and identification data are voluntary.   “The number of ships that may reasonably pose a threat to national security and economic security based on size, cargo-carrying capacity and ocean-going capability is well over 5 million,” and roughly “100,000 changes everyday are tracked [from] vessels based on voluntary broadcasts,” he said.

The key is separating vessels willing to identify themselves through AIS or other systems from those that do not and could pose a threat.   Boats that do not voluntarily transmit identification information and boats made of fiberglass or wood that cannot be detected by space-based radars are “dark vessels.”  Only the vantage point of space can provide a global perspective on maritime activities, Mittleman said, but it is a combination of observations from satellites, aircraft and other boats that narrow down where to investigate and when.

Maj. Charity Weeden, Royal Canadian Air Force and Assistant Attaché for Air and Space Operations at the Canadian Embassy in Washington, noted that Canada has maritime approaches from three oceans (Atlantic, Pacific, Arctic) and more than 150,000 miles of coastline.  “The existing gaps of knowing what is on the ocean approaches are starting to close,” she said, due to space-based solutions.  Among them is the launch of Canada’s Radarsat-2 in 2007, which helps provide “near real-time ship detection, tracking ice floes, detecting oil pollution, monitoring sea ice, and even determining wave direction, day or night.”  But the satellite’s average revisit rate is only 3 or 4 days. “The aim now is persistence,” she said.  The Radarsat Constellation Mission, which will consist of three satellites set to launch in 2018 that will work in tandem, will have daily access to 95% of the globe, up to four passes per day in the Arctic.  They will also have S-AIS. Weeden added that Canada and the United States share similar MDA commitments and should continue working together to maximize results.

Jon Huggins, director of the Oceans Beyond Piracy project of the One Earth Future Foundation, called MDA an essential element in addressing piracy while adding that “not everyone is in favor of more MDA.”  He cited a number of examples where ships do not want to be identified and choose, for example, to turn off their AIS systems in certain parts of the world.  “There were some reports that pirates were able to access certain types of AIS equipment, so a lot of ships were turning off their AIS systems that were transmitting in high-risk areas.”  Others prefer the freedom associated with anonymity such as when “you have an unapproved private security team, and perhaps an incident happens at sea that you may not want reported that brings liability issues as well as some reputation damage.”  Another example is ships that may briefly travel through war zones, but do not want to pay the higher insurance premiums required in those areas.

Bharath Gopalaswamy, deputy director of the South Asia Center at the Atlantic Council, focused on MDA in South and Southeast Asia and the need for international cooperation.  No single country has the resources to do it alone, he said, but he also identified a lengthy list of challenges, including “lack of shared training or conduct in maritime operations, limited maritime intelligence collection and sharing, limited patrol capacity” as well as a perception of the dangers of “a maritime arms race in the region.”  He added there are inadequate “crisis management mechanisms” among the nations in that region and two other challenges are “U.S. behavior in the region” and “the China factor.”  He did not address satellite or other types systems necessary for MDA, but rather the need for enhanced governance and security in that region.

Other panelists also stressed the need for international cooperation.  Regarding the space-borne contribution to MDA, a number of other countries are launching optical and radar imaging satellites and ORBCOMM is no longer the only satellite system equipped with S-AIS.  Thomas’ C-SIGMA Centre – Collaboration in Space for International Global Maritime Awareness Centre -- was founded specifically to “foster wider cooperation and exchange in the use of and access to satellite based maritime surveillance information” on a global level.

Weeden pointed out, however, that satellites cannot do the MDA job alone.  They are an “enhancer,” but there is no one solution -- an international, multilayered approach involving terrestrial, air- and space-borne systems is needed.

ULA Fights To Change Perceptions, Accelerates RD-180 Deliveries

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Jun-2014 (Updated: 18-Jun-2014 11:09 PM)

United Launch Alliance (ULA) President Michael Gass announced today that the company is initiating an advertising campaign to change misperceptions and correct misinformation as its Air Force customer fights a lawsuit filed by competitor SpaceX and controversy swirls over the future of the Russian RD-180 rocket engines it uses for the Atlas V rocket.

ULA builds and launches the nation's two major launch vehicle families -- Atlas V and Delta IV -- that are primarily used for putting national security satellites into space.  NASA and NOAA also use those rockets.  The Air Force awarded ULA a sole-source block-buy contract for 36 rocket engine cores last year.  SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force in April arguing that it should have had a chance to compete for some of those launches.

The SpaceX lawsuit was one of three topics Gass wanted to discuss with representatives of the trade press at a media roundtable this morning in ULA's Washington-area office.  Among the points he stressed were that SpaceX was not -- and is not -- a certified launch services provider for the Air Force even today and "was not a viable competitor" when the Air Force issued the Request for Proposals in March 2012.  Another key message was that ULA has more than 100 years of combined experience launching rockets -- roughly 50 years each for the Atlas and Delta, which date back to the earliest days of the Space Age -- versus newcomer SpaceX.   The national security satellites launched by ULA "save lives," Gass emphasized, and experience counts to be sure they get into orbit when needed.

SpaceX not only wants to be able to compete against ULA for Air Force launches, but founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk argues that ULA's Atlas V rocket should be discontinued entirely because it relies on Russia's RD-180 engines.  National space policy calls for the government to support two families of launch vehicles to ensure access to space in case one requires a lengthy stand-down because of a failure.  Atlas and Delta are those two rockets today.  Musk wants his all-American Falcon to replace Atlas.

The future availability of RD-180s is a hot topic in Washington right now as the House debates the FY2015 Defense Appropriations bill, which would add $220 million to the Air Force budget to begin development on a new U.S. liquid rocket engine to replace it.   Gass made clear today that despite threats from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin to prohibit RD-180s from being used to launch U.S. national security satellites, it is "business as usual" with the engines' Russian manufacturer Energomash.   However, ULA decided to accelerate delivery of the RD-180 engines it already has under contract.   Five engines were due to be delivered in November, but now two will arrive in August and the remaining three in November.  The plan had been for six engines per year after that, but instead Energomash will deliver eight per year.  That means the contract will be fulfilled a year earlier and Gass expects savings because of the shorter period of performance.

Although he still has confidence in the supply of RD-180s from Russia, Gass said ULA wants to position itself for any eventuality.  Therefore it announced earlier this week that it has contracted with "multiple" U.S. companies to develop technical concepts and perform business case analyses for alternative engines.  He declined to say how many companies, who they are, or precisely how much they are being paid, but he said it was company money.  ULA expects to choose one design and supplier by the end of this year with the goal of having a new engine ready for launch in 2019.

Gass complained about widespread misperceptions and "misinformation" being spread about ULA.  Consequently, the company is launching an advertising campaign aimed at decision makers to "illuminate the contrast between ULA and SpaceX."  The nation "has made mistakes in the past," Gass said, and "it is incumbent on us to not let the nation make those same mistakes again."

Obama Administration Opposes New Money for RD-180 Replacement Engine

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2014 (Updated: 17-Jun-2014 10:07 PM)

The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the FY2015 defense appropriations bill this evening.  The bill is scheduled for House floor action tomorrow.  The White House "strongly opposes" the bill for many reasons, one of which is the $220 million it provides to begin development of a new rocket engine to replace Russia's RD-180 used for the Atlas V launch vehicle.

The White House asserts that it is premature to commit that level of resources to a new engine while it is still "evaluating several cost-effective options including public-private partnerships with multiple awards that will drive innovation, stimulate the industrial base, and reduce costs through competition."

As the SAP says, a recent study of alternatives to the RD-180 concluded that building a new engine would take eight years and cost $1.5 billion, with another $3 billion needed for a suitable launch vehicle to utilize it.  The White House apparently believes it can reduce that cost and schedule through public-private partnerships.

Last night, the United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced that it had awarded commercial contracts to "multiple" U.S. companies to develop concepts for a new U.S. liquid rocket engine that could be ready in five years -- by 2019.  ULA said it plans to choose one design and supplier by the end of this year.  ULA is a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing that builds and launches the Atlas V and Delta IV families of rockets.  They are primarily used for national security space launches, as well as for NASA and NOAA satellites. ULA President Michael Gass said that as "the nation's steward of the launch industrial base" it is "incumbent" on the company to "bring forward the best solutions."   ULA added that it is evaluating the technical feasibility of the new concepts for "both private investment and the potential for government-industry investment" -- in short, public-private partnerships. 

U.S. reliance on Russian RD-180 rocket engines for launching national security satellites entered the spotlight earlier this year when the U.S.-Russian geopolitical relationship deteriorated after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimea region.   Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia's aerospace sector and is one of the Russians sanctioned by the Obama Administration, threatened to prohibit use of the RD-180s for launching U.S. national security satellites.   The response from the Administration and Congress has been to eliminate U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines by building a U.S. alternative, though there clearly are differences in how to accomplish that goal.

Lockheed Martin's decision to use Russian rocket engines for the Atlas V dates back to the 1990s, soon after the Soviet Union collapsed.  At the time, the Air Force required the company to build a co-production facility in the United States to manufacture the engines independently of Russia in case the geopolitical relationship changed.   The Air Force later waived that requirement and Lockheed Martin -- through ULA -- stockpiled a two-year supply of the engines to guard against any such eventuality.  Consequently, today the engines are still manufactured in Russia by Energomash and provided to ULA through RD-AMROSS, a joint venture between Energomash and United Technologies, a U.S. company.

Adding to the complexity of the situation, SpaceX filed a lawsuit against the Air Force for awarding a sole-source block-buy contract to ULA in December rather than allowing SpaceX to compete.  SpaceX founder and Chief Designer Elon Musk argues that the Atlas V should be discontinued because of its reliance on Russian engines.  U.S. space policy requires that the government support two launch vehicle families to ensure access to space in case one should experience a lengthy hiatus because of a failure.  Atlas V and Delta IV are those two families today, but Musk sees a future when it is Delta IV and his American-made Falcon.

Senate Begins Debate on FY2015 Appropriations Bill for NASA, NOAA, FAA Space Office

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jun-2014 (Updated: 17-Jun-2014 01:02 PM)

The Senate Appropriations Committee says that the Senate will begin consideration of a FY2015 "minibus" appropriations bill today that bundles three regular appropriations bills together:  Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS, including NASA and NOAA), Transportation-HUD (T-HUD, including the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation), and Agriculture.   The White House supports the Senate bill, but expressed concerns about certain NASA provisions.

Congress routinely combines several appropriations bills together.  When all 12 of the regular appropriations bills are grouped into one it is called an "omnibus" bill.  When a smaller number are bundled they are somewhat jokingly referred to as a minibus.

The Senate is using the House CJS appropriations bill, H.R. 4660, as the vehicle for its minibus, inserting its language combining the three Senate bills in place of what the House passed.  This "amendment in the nature of a substitute" is posted on the Senate Appropriations Committee's website.

The White House issued a Statement of Administration Policy (SAP) on the bill today.  The SAP supports the bill overall, but warns against using it to "advance ideological riders, which the President has made clear are unacceptable." 

With regard to NASA, the SAP expresses concern about three issues in the version of the bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee:

  • Language inserted by Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) requiring commercial crew companies to abide by accounting requirements associated with cost-plus rather than fixed-price contracts.  Opponents of the language call it a "poison pill" because complying could cost a small company like SpaceX a lot of money because it does not have a cadre of personnel in place to handle the paperwork while larger companies like Boeing do.  The SAP says the requirements are "unsuitable for a firm, fixed-price acquisition" and could increase cost and delay schedule.
  • The reduction in the budget for Space Technology.  The White House requested $706 million while the Senate bill allocates only $580 million. 
  • Language regarding two NASA science programs -- a Landsat follow-on and a Europa mission.   Saying that it is premature to specify elements of future missions, the SAP asserts that it is "not feasible" to build a new Landsat as described by the committee within the committee's cost cap of $650 million, and it is premature to designate the Space Launch System (SLS) as the launch vehicle for a Europa mission before the costs and benefits are understood.

The SAP does not list any concerns about NOAA's satellite programs or the FAA's space office.

These three bills -- CJS, T-HUD and Agriculture -- also were bundled together for FY2012.  The House already has passed its versions of  the FY2015 CJS and T-HUD bills and begun consideration of the Agriculture bill, stoking optimism that this may be a rare year when at least some appropriations bills are enacted before the new fiscal year begins on October 1.  That is far from guaranteed, of course, but it has been many years since Congress has gotten even this close.

Intelligence Bill Would Require Senate Confirmation for NRO Director and IG

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2014 (Updated: 16-Jun-2014 06:03 PM)

The Senate-passed version of the latest Intelligence Authorization bill would require that the Director and Inspector General (IG) of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) be subject to Senate confirmation, as well as the Director and IG of the National Security Agency (NSA).   The House-passed bill requires only that the NSA IG receive Senate confirmation.  A Senate Intelligence Committee press release, however, predicts that the House will accept its version.

The Senate's FY2014 Intelligence Authorization Act, S. 1681, was reported from committee last fall (S. Rept. 113-120), but the version passed by the Senate on June 11 is an "amendment in the nature of a substitute."  The new version retains language from the previous text, however, requiring Senate confirmation for the NRO Director and IG.  The bill passed by voice vote.

The House passed a two-year bill for both FY2014 and 2015 on May 30.  It was an amended version of what the House Intelligence Committee cleared in November.  There is nothing in the unclassified version of that bill about national security space activities including any requirement for Senate confirmation of the NRO Director and IG.  

NRO design, builds, and operates the nation's signals and imagery reconnaissance satellites.  Its Director and IG are currently appointed by the President.  The Senate's requirement that they henceforth be confirmed by the Senate come at a time when relationships between the Executive Branch and Congress on intelligence matters are under considerable strain.  The Senate committee also has shown strong interest for several years in tradeoffs between the expensive government-built imagery satellites under NRO's control versus buying commercial imagery from companies like DigitalGlobe.

Senate confirmation is required for a wide range of top level Executive Branch officials from Cabinet secretaries to NASA's Chief Financial Officer.  The confirmation process not only gives the Senate leverage over who is appointed in the first place, but subsequently those individuals can be required to testify, presumably providing more transparency for Congress to know what is going on in the Executive Branch. 

Quite a few top-level intelligence officials already are subject to Senate confirmation, including the Director of National Intelligence and Director of Central Intelligence along with several of their top staff and their agencies' IGs and the Under Secretaries of Intelligence at DOD and the Department of Homeland Security, as a few examples.

The Senate bill would add a total of four more positions to the list:  the Director and IG of NRO and the Director and IG of NSA.

In its report, the Senate committee said that Senate confirmation "will improve oversight and accountability and, ultimately, the effectiveness of the agencies in question."  The committee added, however, that it actually thinks fewer positions across the government should be subject to Senate confirmation and it would "evaluate" whether other positions in the Intelligence Community that currently require Senate confirmation can be relieved of that requirement. 

The House-passed bill would add a requirement of Senate confirmation only for the NSA IG.   Even though the Senate bill affects four positions and the House version only one, a press release from the Senate committee issued after the bill cleared the Senate asserts that the measure would now go to the House "where it is expected to be passed in its current form and sent to the president for enactment."  Whether the President will agree to Senate confirmation for these positions remains to be seen.

Separately, in its report on the bill last fall, the Senate committee included extensive language encouraging the use of commercial satellite imagery generally and specifically allowing commercial firms to sell data with higher resolution -- 0.25 meter -- than the 0.50 meter then allowed.   The government recently agreed to the 0.25 meter limit.

What's Happening in Space Policy June 16-20, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jun-2014 (Updated: 15-Jun-2014 05:02 PM)

Here is our list of upcoming space policy related events for the week of June 16-20, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate both are in session this week.

During the Week

Inside the Beltway, perhaps the most interesting event will be Senate debate on a "minibus" appropriations bill that bundles the bill that funds NASA and NOAA (Commerce-Justice-Science or CJS), the bill that funds FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (Transportation-HUD or T-HUD), and the Agriculture bill.  The Hill newspaper reports that's the plan and the Senate did begin debate on the motion to proceed to the CJS bill last week, a procedural step.   Those three bills were bundled together in FY2012, too. 

It's hard to remember the last time the Senate took up the CJS appropriations bill so early in the year.  Typically the Senate turns to such bills after the August recess.   It is amazing to see how much progress is being made on appropriations bills on both sides of Capitol Hill this year thanks to the Ryan-Murray budget agreement reached last December that set the spending limits for FY2014 and FY2015.  It's never over till the fat lady sings, of course, but one kernel of optimism for those three bills, at least, is that the House already has passed two (CJS and T-HUD) and begun debate on the third (Agriculture) though it is not the Majority Leader's schedule for the coming week.  Instead the House will be debating the defense appropriations bill, which was reported from committee on Friday (H.R. 4870, H. Rept. 113-473).

Outside the Beltway, the third International Space Station Research and Development Conference in Chicago should be interesting.   Organized by the American Astronautical Society (AAS) in cooperation with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the conference has a very impressive agenda.  AAS sometimes offers webcasts of key sessions of its conferences; we're checking to see if they are providing webcasts this time and will add the information to our calendar item for that event if the answer is yes.

Those and the other events we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Monday, June 16

Monday-Friday, June 16-20

Tuesday-Thursday, June 17-19

Wednesday, June 18

Wednesday-Thursday, June 18-19

Friday, June 20

NASA Ready to Launch Replacement OCO Satellite for Measuring Atmospheric CO2

Len Ly
Posted: 13-Jun-2014 (Updated: 13-Jun-2014 01:29 PM)

NASA plans to launch next month its first spacecraft dedicated to measuring Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), the leading human-produced greenhouse gas driving climate change, the agency announced on Thursday.

Called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2), it replaces the nearly identical OCO, which was lost during a rocket launch failure in 2009.

OCO-2 will carry one instrument with three high-resolution spectrometers that will allow scientists to use light-analyzing processes to estimate concentrations of CO2 and oxygen. The satellite will take measurements over Earth’s sunlit hemisphere, capturing hundreds of thousands of measurements daily from the ground directly below, over oceans, and targeted sites as it passes overhead.

“Climate change is the challenge of our generation,” said Betsy Edwards, OCO-2 program executive at NASA Headquarters in Washington, one of the panelists at the press conference. “OCO-2 will provide new insight into where and how CO2 is moving in and out of the atmosphere…and it’s going to be an unprecedented level of coverage and resolution.”

The carbon cycle -- how the planet breathes -- remains largely a mystery.  Much of what is known about the role of CO2 comes from ground-based observations at Mauna Loa in Hawaii dating back to 1956, said Mike Gunson, OCO-2 project scientist at the agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in California, which manages the mission.   Satellites like OCO-2 can provide a global view.

Atmospheric CO2 is at its highest level in at least the past 800,000 years and nearly 40 billion tons is released annually by human activities such as fossil fuel burning according to the agency.

“Half of what we release is being absorbed by the plants or the oceans, but it is variable from year to year and understanding that variability is really crucial,” Gunson said. “CO2 is very stable and there are few loss processes, if any, once it is in the atmosphere.”

Gunson and his JPL colleagues OCO-2 project manager Ralph Basilio and OCO-2 deputy project scientist Annmarie Eldering were also members of the panel.

With the loss of the original OCO spacecraft, “we didn’t even have one problem to solve,” Basilio said as he described the heartbreak then and the excitement now to complete unfinished business.

The team will see their second chance lift off on a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket on July 1 at 2:56 a.m. Pacific Daylight Time from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California if the schedule remains on track.

Edwards thanked NASA’s Japanese partners, who she said reached out and invited NASA to participate in analyzing data from their Greenhouse gases Observing SATellite (GOSAT) after the OCO mishap.

The original OCO cost roughly $275 million compared to $465 million for its replacement, Edwards said.  She cited the launch vehicle change (from a Taurus-XL to a Delta II), program delays, reengineering changes and inflation for the cost hike.

OCO-2, which has a design life of two years but sufficient fuel to last beyond that, will lead a line of five other international Earth-monitoring satellites known as the A-Train constellation. Every 16 days the spacecraft will observe the same spot on the globe to help give scientists seasonal as well as annual patterns.

NASA was planning to use OCO-2 spare parts to build OCO-3 and attach it to the International Space Station in late 2016, but budget constraints forced the agency to put that idea on hold.  “We hope to get back to OCO-3,” Edwards said, “but right now the budget doesn’t allow.”

For FY2015, NASA is seeking $21 million to operate OCO-2. The cost is part of the $4,972 million the agency is requesting for its science account, of which $1,770 million is for earth science.  The House-passed FY2015 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill would cut that amount slightly, to $1,750 million, while the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended a significant increase to $1,832 million largely because it wants to transfer two NOAA satellite programs to NASA.

Ostapenko: Failed Bearing Doomed May 2014 Proton Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jun-2014 (Updated: 12-Jun-2014 09:55 PM)

The head of Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, says that the investigation into the failure of a Proton rocket last month concluded that it was caused by a failed bearing.  

Russia's official Itar-Tass news agency reports that according to Roscosmos Director Oleg Ostapenko the cause of the May 16 (May 15 Eastern Daylight Time) accident was a failed bearing in the turbo pump of the steering engine.  Ostapenko reportedly said that the conclusion was in line with preliminary findings made shortly after the failure. 

The date for the next Proton launch was not announced, but Russia usually recovers from such launch accidents quite quickly.

The Ekspress AM-4R communications satellite and its Briz-M upper stage were lost because of the accident and presumably burned up in the atmosphere.  The satellite was a replacement for the Ekspress AM-4 satellite that also was lost in a Proton launch failure in 2011.  These failures are part of an increasingly longer list of Russian launch vehicle failures since December 2010 that has resulted in high level Russian political attention to the state of the Russian space industry and associated changes in the structure of that industry as well as leadership of Roscosmos and the Khrunichev State Research and Production Center, which manufactures Proton.

Russia announced last year that it would completely revamp its space industry because of the rocket failures.  It created a United Rocket and Space Corporation (ORKK) headed by Igor Komarov.   Komarov said earlier this week that ORKK does not have the authority or resources to carry out a complete audit of all of the Russian space industry, but overall the enterprises seem stable, although not all can afford to carry out modernization efforts.

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