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What's Happening in Space Policy March 7-11, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Mar-2016 (Updated: 06-Mar-2016 02:02 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 7-11, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.

During the Week

It's another busy week as three conferences take place at the same time, all in the D.C.-area.   One, AIAA's DEFENSE 2016, is classified SECRET/U.S. ONLY so that limits participation and is broadly focused, not just about space.  The other two are open to anyone who can afford the registration fee: the American Astronautical Society's annual Goddard Memorial Symposium in Greenbelt, MD and, around the Beltway, SATELLITE 2016, in National Harbor, MD.  Great sessions at both conferences will make it difficult choose where to be.   Without traffic, the distance between the two is about 25 minutes, so conceivably one could go back and forth, though in reality the "without traffic" hours in the D.C.-area are severely limited.

Up on the Hill, House members are taking the week off from legislative duties to check in with their constituents back home.  The Senate is in session, though, and on Thursday the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee will hold its hearing on NASA's FY2017 budget request.  As usual, the Obama Administration decided to request far less funding for programs that are congressional priorities -- like the Space Launch System, which is near and dear to subcommittee chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Alabama), so one can well imagine how the hearing will go.  Not to mention that the Obama Administration is using the "gimmick" explained in our fact sheet on NASA's budget request.   The White House and NASA say the request is for $19.025 billion, which is $260 million less than what Congress provided for FY2016, but be sure to read the fine print.   In actuality, the request for appropriations is $18.262 billion, about $1 billion less than FY2016.   The White House and NASA display the request as $19.025 billion by adding in $664 million they expect Congress to transfer to the discretionary portion of the federal budget (that funds NASA and other agencies) from the mandatory portion (that funds Medicare and Social Security, e.g.).  Then they add another $100 million for aeronautics from a $10-dollar-a-barrel tax the White House wants to levy on oil companies for a 21st Century Clean Transportation System initiative.  If you haven't heard about this already, you can learn more from our fact sheet, but, safe to say, the hearing will be lively. 

If all that doesn't keep you busy enough, the NASA Advisory Council's Science committee is meeting at the end of the week, preceded by a meeting of its planetary science subcommittee. 

And all of this will be topped off Friday night with the annual "space prom" -- the National Space Club's Goddard Memorial Dinner -- with about 2,000 VIPs from all sectors of the aerospace community dressed to the hilt.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.  Check back throughout the week for additional events that we learn about as the week progresses and are added to our Events of Interest list.

Monday, March 7

Monday-Thursday, March 7-10

  • SATELLITE 2016, Gaylord National Convention Center, National Harbor, MD

Tuesday, March 8

Tuesday-Thursday, March 8-10

  • Goddard Memorial Symposium (American Astronautical Society), Greenbelt Marriott, Greenbelt, MD (March 8 is opening reception only; sessions are March 9-10)
  • AIAA DEFENSE 2016, JHU/Applied Physic Lab, Laurel, MD (SECRET/U.S. ONLY)

Wednesday, March 9

Wednesday-Thursday, March 9-10

Thursday, March 10

Thursday-Friday, March 10-11

Friday, March 11

  • Goddard Memorial Dinner (National Space Club), Hilton Washington, 1919 Connecticut Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 6:30 pm ET

McCain, James Trade Barbs Over RD-180 Engines

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Mar-2016 (Updated: 03-Mar-2016 11:13 PM)

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) today, SASC chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) and Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Deborah Lee James engaged in a feisty exchange over Russian RD-180 rocket engines.   The two disagree on how many RD-180s the United Launch Alliance (ULA) should be able to obtain for launching national security satellites.  Today's exchange focused on whether ULA should be prohibited from buying any because a restructuring of the Russian aerospace sector places the engines under the purview of two Russians who are sanctioned by the United States.

McCain challenged James's knowledge of the new Russian space governance structure, repeatedly asking if she knew that two "cronies" of Russian President Vladimir Putin are now on the board that oversees the new Roscosmos state corporation.  In his view, they financially benefit from the sales of RD-180s because the company that manufactures them, Energomash, is now part of the Roscosmos state corporation.

Roscosmos was a government agency separate from the Russian aerospace industry, but was recently restructured into a state corporation with the same name that merges both sectors.  Dmitry Rogozin, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister who oversees the aerospace sector, and Sergei Chemezov, both were sanctioned by the United States after Russia's actions in Ukraine.  McCain asserts both serve on the new Roscosmos Board of Directors.  McCain argues that sales of RD-180 engines provide financial gain to those two individuals and therefore the sales should be stopped.  The U.S. Treasury Department is in charge of implementing sanctions and DOD acquisition chief Frank Kendall reportedly said last week that it has made a preliminary determination that the RD-180 sales do not violate them.

In his opening statement today, McCain said the Treasury Department's determination reflects "a level of hypocrisy" that will "make it harder to convince our European allies to renew their own sanctions on Russia this summer." 

The FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) limits to 9 the additional RD-180 engines ULA may obtain beyond 15 that were purchased as part of a 2013 Air Force-ULA block buy contract for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) services.  ULA's two EELVs, the Atlas V and Delta IV, launch virtually all U.S. national security satellites. The block buy was for 36 launches, 29 of which were Atlas Vs, which are powered by Russia's RD-180s.  At the time of Russia's incursion into Ukraine, 15 were purchased, leaving 14, of which 5 were under contract.  The Air Force and ULA have steadfastly insisted that all 14 are needed despite efforts to build a new U.S. engine to replace the RD-180s.  McCain insists that only 9 are needed (the 5 under contact plus 4 more), hence the language in the NDAA.   In recent months, the Air Force and ULA have been saying that 18 (not 14) more are required.

At today's hearing, McCain repeatedly challenged James over whether or not she knew that Roscosmos now is overseen by individuals who are sanctioned.  

James insisted she does not know who makes money from RD-180 sales and the Treasury Department determined that purchasing them does not violate the sanctions.  In her opening statement, she said the sooner an RD-180 prohibition comes into effect, the more disruptive it will be and the more it will cost -- $1.5 to $5 billion -- and none of those costs are included in the Air Force's FY2017 budget request. 

McCain sternly asked if she knew Roscosmos is the parent of the company (Energomash) that manufactures RD-180s.  She replied she had not studied the matter in detail but "if you say so, I believe you."  McCain angrily honed in on whether or not she knew that the new Roscosmos, with Rogozin and Chemezov on its board, is the parent company.   James frostily rejoined "prior to you telling me this today, that individual aspect, no.  But I accept your word and I know it now."  She insisted that the Treasury Department does not have Roscosmos on the sanctions list.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) focused on the opportunity costs to the Air Force of ending use of RD-180s soon: "You really can't make foolish decisions and incur more costs than is reasonably necessary...."   ULA builds the Atlas V and Delta IV in Alabama.

James's estimate of the potential cost of ending use of RD-180s sooner rather than later reflects a potential need to shift satellites to the much more expensive Delta IV.  SpaceX also recently was certified to launch national security satellites with its Falcon 9 rocket, but Falcon 9 is not capable of launching the heaviest national security satellites.  The Air Force has announced four rocket propulsion awards for the development a new U.S.-built rocket engine to replace the RD-180, but it will take some time for them to be ready and integrated into a launch vehicle. The Air Force, ULA and Congress agree on the need to transition from the RD-180s to a U.S. alternative.  The debate is over the timing.

James told SASC member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida) that assured access to space is the Air Force's top concern.  She argued for more flexibility over when RD-180s no longer will be allowed. Nelson said he worries that there will be a gap between when RD-180s are prohibited, meaning Atlas V rockets are no longer available, and when new launch vehicles with new engines are ready.  The result would be that the expensive Delta IV Heavy rockets will be required to launch the majority of national security satellites, costing a lot of money.  James agreed. 

ULA President Tory Bruno estimates the cost of a Delta IV launch at $400-600 million versus $140-164 million on average for an Atlas V.

The RD-180 issue splits congressional defense authorizers, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, who want to limit RD-180s, and appropriators, the House and Senate appropriations committees, who want flexibility.  

At a House Appropriations defense subcommittee hearing yesterday, James faced a much more friendly audience that agreed that flexibility is needed as to when the use of RD-180s should end.  Rep. Ken Calvert (R-CA) complimented James on the award of four contracts to build new rocket propulsion systems. He and subcommittee chairman Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) quizzed James on whether SpaceX could launch more national security satellites.  She said there are eight types of launches and SpaceX can launch four.  Calvert and Frelinghuysen focused on the need for assured access to space and James stressed that having a new U.S. engine ready by 2019, as required by law, is one thing, but it will not be integrated into a new launch vehicle and certified by that time, hence the need for flexibility on the availability of RD-180s.

Today's SASC hearing ended on a combative note.  In its final moments, McCain challenged James on her earlier statement that terminating use of RD-180s could cost between $1.5 billion and $5 billion.  He cited a letter he received from James that day "after several months" of waiting saying that the cost would be "in excess of $1.45 billion," but now she was saying up to $5 billion.  She rejoined that it is matter of what assumptions are made.  McCain had the last word: "I am to disregard, really, the letter you sent to me that I've been waiting several months for.  Maybe that helps explains some of the difficulties that we have."

Scott Kelly Returns Home to Houston

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Mar-2016 (Updated: 03-Mar-2016 06:13 AM)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly returned to his home in Houston, TX in the early hours this morning (March 3) Eastern Standard Time.  He  stood before family, friends, colleagues and TV cameras showing no signs of having spent the last 340 days in the weightlessness of the International Space Station.

"It's great to be back in Texas, on U.S. soil ... back here on planet Earth," he said as he addressed well-wishers, surrounded by Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden; his twin brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly; Presidential Science Adviser Dr. John Holdren, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden; and Johnson Space Center Director Ellen Ochoa.  Bolden and Ochoa also are former astronauts.

Scott Kelly, center, with, from left to right, Jill Biden, Mark Kelly, John Holdren, Charlie Bolden and Ellen Ochoa.  Screenshot from NASA TV.

Mark and Scott Kelly are identical twins and participated in a Twins Study throughout the mission to help scientists understand the effects of long duration spaceflight on human physiology and psychology in preparation for trips to destinations like Mars.  Kelly and his Year-in-Space partner Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko will undergo extensive tests now they are back on Earth as well.   The two men returned to Earth on March 1 along with Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov on the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft.

Kelly flew back from Kazakhstan on a NASA airplane (stopping twice enroute), landing at Ellington Field, TX very close to Johnson Space Center at about 2:30 am EST.  Speaking briefly, Kelly stressed that his flight was not an individual achievement, but a team effort, quoting a friend who taught him that "teamwork makes the dream work."  He added that this would not be the last such mission -- "it's in our DNA, of our country, to explore and we must never stop doing this, we must lead. we must learn, and we must discover."

Kelly, Kornienko Land After "Year in Space" Mission Aboard ISS

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Mar-2016 (Updated: 01-Mar-2016 11:37 PM)

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko returned to Earth tonight (March 1) aboard the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft after 340 days in space.  NASA bills the mission as a "Year in Space" even though it is not quite a year.  It sets a record for the longest continuous duration in space for an American astronaut.

Joining Kelly and Kornienko on the ride home was cosmonaut Sergei Volkov, who arrived on the International Space Station in September.

The trio landed on the steppes of Kazahstan at 11:26 pm ET (10:26 am March 2 local time at the landing site).  Kelly will soon board an airplane to fly back to Houston,TX.  NASA TV is scheduled to cover his landing there at about 11:45 pm ET tomorrow (March 2) where he will be met by Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden, Science Adviser to the President John Holdren, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and his brother, former astronaut Mark Kelly.

The Kelly brothers are identical twins and have been participating in a Twins Study throughout the mission to help scientists investigate the effects of long duration spaceflight mission on the human body in preparation for longer trips to destinations like Mars.

Although this is the longest continuous duration in space for an American, four Russian cosmonauts have spent 365 days or more in space.  The record for total consecutive days in space is held by cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov who spent 438 days aboard the Mir space station in 1994-1995.  Sergei Avdeyev spent 380 days on Mir in 1998-1999.  Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov spent 365 days together on Mir in 1987-1988.  In all cases, other crews came and went during those missions.

NASA will hold two press conferences at Johnson Space Center on Friday, at 1:00 and 2:00 pm ET respectively, with Mark Kelly and two NASA scientists, Julie Robinson and John Charles, at the first and Scott Kelly at the second.  Both will be broadcast by NASA TV.

NASA astronaut Tim Kopra, European Space Agency (ESA) astronaut Tim Peake (United Kingdom) and Russian cosmonaut Yuri Malenchenko remain aboard the ISS.  A new three-person crew is scheduled for launch on March 18 -- NASA astronaut Jeff Williams and Russian cosmonauts Oleg Skriprochka and Alexey Ovchinin -- restoring the ISS to its usual crew complement of six. 


ULA Wins Big with Two AF Propulsion Contracts, One with Blue Origin, One with Aerojet Rocketdyne

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

The Air Force awarded the last two of four contracts to develop new rocket propulsion systems today.  The United Launch Alliance (ULA) is partnered with Blue Origin on one of the awards and with Aerojet Rocketdyne on the other.  The Air Force announced the other two awards last month.

The Air Force is using "Other Transaction Authority" to enter into public-private partnerships with companies to develop new rocket engines.  The first two awards went to Orbital ATK and SpaceX in January, with initial government investments of $46.9 million for Orbital ATK and $33.6 million for SpaceX.

The awards announced today will benefit ULA's development of a new rocket, Vulcan, to replace its existing Atlas V.

The government's goal is to have at least two competitive U.S. launch vehicles, using American-built engines, to launch national security satellites beginning in 2019.  The catalysts for this effort were a congressional decision to end use of Russian RD-180 engines, which power the Atlas V, because of Russia's actions in Ukraine, and more broadly a desire to lower launch costs through competition.  ULA has been essentially a monopoly provider of national security launch services with its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since it was formed in 2006 as a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Boeing.  The debate over RD-180s and the timing of the transition to an all-American rocket is much debated and has been reported extensively on this website.

ULA initially chose Blue Origin as its engine partner to build an American-only alternative to the Atlas V.  Blue Origin, owned by Jeff Bezos, is developing a new type of engine that uses liquid oxygen and liquefied natural gas (methane).  Designated BE-4, Blue Origin is funding the engine development program itself.  Two BE-4s would replace one RD-180, although other engineering modifications are needed.  It is not a simple swap.  The contract announced today will pay for integrating the engine into the new Vulcan rocket and for ULA to develop a new Advanced Cyrogenic Evolved Stage (ACES) upper stage.  The initial government investment for this contract is $46.6 million -- $45.8 million for the integration effort and $0.8 million for ACES.  Neither ULA nor the Air Force announced the total potential government investment, only the initial investment.

ULA subsequently decided to partner with Aerojet Rocketdyne as a "backup" in case Blue Origin's engine did not work out.  Aerojet Rocketdyne is developing the AR1 engine that will use traditional liquid oxygen and kerosene.  The other contract announced today is for that effort.   Aerojet Rocketdyne said in a press release that the total agreement is valued at $804 million, with the Air Force potentially investing $536 million and Aerojet Rocketdyne and its partners $268 million.  The initial government investment is $115.3 million, with Aerojet Rocketdyne and ULA contributing another $57.7 million.

Aerojet Rocketdyne President and CEO Eileen Drake said the AR1 has the least technical risk and work is expected to be completed no later than Dec. 31, 2019.   Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), the leading advocate for replacing Russian RD-180s with an American-made engine, put 2019 in legislation as the date by which the new engine must be ready.  Drake said the AR1 will be available for use on the Atlas V, Vulcan, and "other launch vehicles in development." 

ULA President Tory Bruno said that ULA is "fully committed to transitioning as quickly and affordably as possible to a domestic engine" and Aerojet Rocketdyne "is moving us toward one of two viable options with the excellent progress on the AR1 engine development."

In a separate press release about the Blue Origin contract, Bruno said ULA continues to work with both Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne "to pursue two options for a next-generation American engine and that is why we are teaming with two of the world's leading propulsion companies."

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and the Air Force's Program Executive Officer for Space said these "innovative public-private partnerships" are key to assuring access to space and addressing "the urgent need to transition away from strategic foreign reliance." 

Witnesses Support Goal of NASA Restructuring Legislation, But Not Specifics

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Feb-2016 (Updated: 29-Feb-2016 06:51 AM)

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing last Thursday on legislation introduced by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) to restructure how NASA is governed.  Culberson says the goal is to make NASA less political and help ensure stability for its activities across presidential administrations and Congresses.

The Space Leadership Preservation Act (H.R. 2093) is on its third iteration.  It was originally introduced by then-Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) in the 112th and 113th Congresses (H.R. 6491 and H.R. 823, respectively).  Wolf chaired the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee and retired in 2014.  Culberson is his successor in that position and he reintroduced the bill in this Congress.  He was the first witness at the February 25 hearing.

Many topics were discussed, but in terms of the legislation, the focus was on three provisions:

  • To create a Board of Directors to govern NASA and submit its own budget request directly to Congress without going through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB);
  • To appoint the NASA Administrator for a fixed term of 10 years; and
  • To use “long term” contracting for space transportation vehicles and payloads and other infrastructure intended for placement or operation in space or on celestial bodies and related services.

The Board of Directors concept is similar to the National Science Board that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF). Fixed terms of office exist for several government positions. The FBI director is appointed for 10 years, the NSF Director for 6 years, and the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for 5 years, for example.

A hearing on an earlier version of this legislation was held by this committee in 2013 as have many others on the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.  Therefore this hearing covered familiar ground, with committee Republicans, Culberson, and two of the other three witnesses lambasting the Obama Administration for cancelling the Moon/Mars Constellation program initiated during the George W. Bush Administration.  Those other two witnesses were Michael Griffin, who headed NASA under that Administration, and former NASA astronaut Eileen Collins, who was a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) during the Bush-Obama transition.  A third witness on the panel with Griffin and Collins, Cristina Chaplain from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), maintained neutrality on that topic.

The hearing lasted more than two hours.  Key takeaways and quotable quotes from the witnesses, in the order of their appearance at the hearing, include the following.

Rep. John Culberson.  "We need to make [NASA] less political, more professional, and give them the ability to see far into the future with knowledge and confidence that the Congress will be there behind them."  Over the last 20 years "NASA has spent more than $20 billion on cancelled development programs. ... No company, no entity, no agency of the Federal government can function in this environment."  The point of having a Board of Directors that submits its own budget request directly to Congress is to enable Congress to know what "the best minds at NASA recommend" rather than going through OMB, because "the bean counters at OMB are the ones making the big decisions for our nation's space program. It's just unacceptable."  Congress would "lay [the Board's and OMB's proposals] down side by side" and "see what is necessary to make those dreams of the future come true."   The problem is "governance" and "if we want to ensure that America maintains its leadership role in outer space, if we want to make sure that we're protecting the higher ground, and that our children and grandchildren will live to see interstellar flight," this legislation should be passed, although he is open to modifications that will make it better.

Mike Griffin “Our space policy is bankrupt.”  As former Boeing official Jim Albaugh says, the Obama plan offers “no dream, no vision, no plan, no budget, and no remorse.”   Although stability across presidential administrations is desirable generally, it does not apply in this case.  “I would not want the desire [for stability] to prevent us from correcting the problems that have been created over the past seven years.”  Lauding the 2005, 2008 and 2010 NASA authorization bills that laid out a plan for human exploration, he believes the proper body to set long term goals is Congress and then Congress should ensure they are implemented. “When proposals are made by the executive branch that conflict with the existing law, why does Congress go along?”  The proposed legislation could be “one tool to produce constancy of purpose, but it’s just a tool.”  Congress needs to set the goals in law and ensure administrations follow them.

If NASA were to be run by a Board of Directors, it should not come up with its own budget proposal.  The White House will put forward a budget request and there is no point in having two.  The big problem is OMB, a “haven for largely unelected, unappointed, not very well qualified staff who seek to exercise a level of power and control in their area that their accomplishments have not earned.”  The comment was made in response to a question from Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who had been just been discussing morale at NASA with Collins.  Beyer joked that Griffin was not helping morale at OMB with comments like that.  Griffin replied “You know, that’s really too bad.”

Making the Administrator a term appointment might not change anything because that person still would report to the President and if a President wants to change the program, the Administrator either needs to comply or resign.  “I have no objection to considering a 5-year term, or 6-year term, or 8-year term, whatever length … nor do I have any objection with the way it’s done today.”  If he had been asked to change course as his successor was, he would have resigned.

Eileen Collins.  Program cancellations “made by bureaucracies, behind closed doors, without input by the people, are divisive, damaging, cowardly, and many times more expensive in the long run.”  The decision to cancel Constellation came as a surprise to everyone on NAC at the time.   “A continuity of purpose over many years and political administrations” will avoid “surprises like this [that] set us back years.”

To prepare for a human trip to Mars, “as a crewmember, I certainly would like to see the hardware tested on the moon’s surface first. … Policy leaders are asking astronauts to risk their lives on space journeys and it is our experience that testing in similar environments, like the moon, will minimize risk.”

A term of 10 years for a NASA Administrator is too long and could deter people from agreeing to serve.  Perhaps 5 or 6 years would be better.  If there is a Board of Directors, it is crucial that the members be “entirely independent.”  More generally, “We need to get the smartest people into NASA” and the way to do that is “having a mission they believe in.”

Cristina Chaplain.   “The concept of stability is an important one for NASA since projects require heavy investments both in terms of time and money.”   However, if NASA were governed by a Board of Directors, it “must be willing to hold program managers accountable as well as leadership by cancelling or restructuring programs that do not perform well.”  As for using multi-year contracts, “they are generally used for more production items and low-risk technology. Not too many NASA projects fit this description.”   DOD “has to demonstrate that there’s stable design, stable requirements [and] that there’s going to be substantial savings achieved in buying in bulk” before it can use a multiyear contract.    Although the bill talks about multiyear “contracting,” there are other “options for multiyear funding and appropriations” that could be explored.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 29 - March 4, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Feb-2016 (Updated: 29-Feb-2016 05:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 29 - March 4, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's another busy week  -- on the Hill, off the Hill, and off the planet. 

NASA astronaut Scott Kelly is finishing up his last days on the International Space Station (ISS) as part of the "year in space" mission (it's not quite a year, actually, but about 340 days).  He and cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko have been on ISS since March 27, 2015 (Eastern Time) to further studies of human physiological and psychological adaptation to spaceflight in preparation for even longer trips to destinations like Mars.   Theirs is not the longest duration mission -- four Russian cosmonauts spent 365 days or more continuously on the Soviet/Russian space station Mir in the 1980s and 1990s -- but is the most recent and Kelly is the first American on such a long mission.  (The record for total consecutive days in space is held by cosmonaut Valeri Polyakov who spent 438 days aboard the Mir space station in 1994-1995.  Sergei Avdeyev spent 380 days on Mir in 1998-1999.  Vladimir Titov and Musa Manarov spent 365 days together on Mir in 1987-1988.  In all cases, other crews came and went during those missions.)

Kelly and Kornienko are scheduled to land in the Soyuz TMA-18M spacecraft along with cosmonaut Sergei Volkov (who arrived at ISS in September) very late Tuesday night -- 11:27 ET.   Kelly will embark on his trip home to Houston very soon thereafter, arriving late Wednesday night (11:45 pm ET) where he will be greeted by Second Lady of the United States Dr. Jill Biden and other White House and NASA dignitaries.   On Friday, he will participate in a press briefing from Johnson Space Center at 2:00 pm ET, preceded at 1:00 by a briefing by two NASA scientists and his identical twin brother, Mark.   The two brothers have been part of a Twins Study during the mission.  NASA TV will cover it all.

It may be hard to top that in terms of news value, but there is much more going on, including quite a few congressional hearings on military and civil space programs.  Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh III will appear before the House Appropriations defense subcommittee on Wednesday and the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday.  FAA Administrator Michael Huerta will testify to the House Appropriations Transportation-HUD subcommittee on Wednesday, though it is not clear how much focus will be on the $19.8 million request for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation.  

Perhaps of most interest to readers of this website is a House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee hearing on Thursday on NASA's new "Ocean Worlds" program.  Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the subcommittee, is an enthusiast for sending a probe to Jupiter's moon Europa, which is thought to have an ocean under its icy crust.  It is not the only solar system body thought to have an ocean and Culberson directed NASA to initiate a program to explore these "ocean worlds" in his report on last year's appropriations bill.  He has invited Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and Cornell's Jonathan Lunine to testify about the program.   JPL is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) operated by the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), so some people consider it a NASA field center while others point out it is a contractor and not "government" in the same sense as the rest of NASA.   Thus one can say that the hearing has a NASA witness or not as one chooses, but it is interesting to see just this one part of NASA's program singled out for a hearing, reflecting the chairman's intense interest.  Culberson says often that he is convinced that evidence of life will be discovered on Europa and hence he believes this is one of NASA's top priorities.  Elachi is retiring this summer, by the way, after 15 years at the helm of JPL (part of a 45 year career there).  He will move over to CalTech as professor emeritus to continue his research.  His successor has not been announced. 

Meanwhile, there are meetings of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group (MEPAG), several NASA advisory committees, National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committees, the Tennessee Valley Interstellar Workshop, an ISU-DC space cafe, an Orbital-ATK investors teleconference, and an announcement by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about NASA's new plans for X-planes.  Whew!  Get out your running shoes.

The many events of interest this week that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.  Check back throughout the week for additional events that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Oh, and happy Leap Year!  We certainly need that extra day.

Sunday-Wednesday, February 28-March 2

Monday, February 29

Tuesday, March 1

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 1-2

Wednesday, March 2

Wednesday-Thursday, March 2-3

Wednesday-Friday, March 2-4

Thursday, March 3

Friday, March 4


Editor's Note:  NASA has countdown clocks on its website for the 1-year mission showing elapsed time and remaining time.   At this moment (February 29, 5:50 pm) it shows that the mission duration for the two men will be 340 days, 7 hours, 44 minutes and 2 seconds, not "just under 342 days" as we calculated yesterday.  The text has been changed accordingly.

Bridenstine Lays Out Multipronged Legislative Agenda for Commercial Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Feb-2016 (Updated: 28-Feb-2016 11:53 AM)

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) is planning a multipronged approach to getting government space agencies to adopt commercial solutions.  He will introduce a comprehensive bill -- the American Space Renaissance Act -- later this year, but does not expect it to pass en toto.  Instead, he sees it as a repository of "plug and play" provisions that will be inserted into other pieces of legislation, especially this year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

Speaking at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) breakfast meeting on Friday, Bridenstine laid out his plans "to promote policies that will permanently make America the predominant spacefaring nation."   A draft of the American Space Renaissance Act will be released at the Space Foundation's Space Symposium in April and Bridenstine is seeking feedback from interested parties. 

He listed a number themes that will be included in the draft legislation:  fostering, encouraging and incentivizing industry to innovate and thrive in the United States; expanding launch options and producing more satellites in the United States; having a robust space travel infrastructure; being the home of world-changing plans like point-to-point suborbital flight, lunar habitats and asteroid mining; and getting the government to purchase services instead of owning satellites.

The bill is intended to serve as a "conversation piece as well as a repository for the best ideas that we can plug and play into different pieces of legislation," he said.

Bridenstine serves on both the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, where he chairs the Subcommittee on Environment, and the House Armed Services Committee, where he is a member of the subcommittee on Strategic Forces.  That provides him a broader view of space issues than most Members of Congress.   The second-term Congressman said his constituents (in the Tulsa area) have little interest in space programs because they do not recognize the role that space plays in their everyday lives, but he is convinced of its importance.

He is particularly passionate about the nation's weather satellites.  His goal is for forecasts to become so accurate that there will be zero deaths from tornadoes, a frequent occurrence in Oklahoma.  He has been a strong critic of NOAA's management of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES)-R series because of their high cost and schedule delays, but more broadly worries that NOAA builds "Battlestar Gallaticas" that are vulnerable to a range of threats -- from launch failures, to system failures, to attacks from enemies -- and sees commercial weather companies and their constellations of small satellites as part of the solution. 

The FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act directed NOAA to initiate a commercial weather data pilot program to purchase, evaluate and calibrate commercial weather data and assess its viability for inclusion in NOAA's numerical weather models.  The idea originated in the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) that passed the House last year, which Bridenstine co-sponsored.  It would authorize $9 million for this effort.  The Senate has not acted on that bill yet, but the weather data pilot program was included in NOAA's portion of the FY2016 appropriations bill, with $3 million allocated.  A Bridenstine aide said on Friday that a report from NOAA on its implementation of the pilot program was due on February 16, but has not yet been received.  NOAA is requesting $5 million for FY2017.

Bridenstine said he plans to try and include a similar provision for DOD in this year's NDAA.   DOD is still struggling to shape its weather satellite strategy following the 2010 cancellation of the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).   It has had a few false starts and Bridenstine clearly sees commercial data as part of the solution.

He also will try to include language in the NDAA to begin a transition of responsibility for providing space situational awareness (SSA) data and conjunction analyses (to warn of potential collisions) to commercial entities and foreign governments.   Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JPSoC) provides SSA data to everyone, but Bridenstine reiterated Friday what he has said in the past that it is a distraction for JSPoC, which should be focused on its DOD mission of "fighting and winning wars."   He wants to create a commercialized Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center that fuses unclassified DOD data with data from international partners and commercial operators.  The Center would be subject to oversight by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). 

Bridenstine insisted that he is a conservative Republican who typically does not favor government regulation, but it is necessary in some cases. Commercial space is one of them because "the lack of appropriate regulation is regulation itself."  His goal is to find a "sweet spot" to "maximize regulatory certainty and minimize regulatory interference - a de minumus approach."

As for his Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center that he wants included in the NDAA, he stressed that he is not proposing any new regulatory authority.  "Zero. My objective is to gradually build the capacity of a civilian agency" to do SSA.  Eventually, he thinks a government agency -- specifically FAA/AST -- should be in charge of Space Traffic Management, but he is not proposing that right now.  He also restated his intent for FAA/AST to be designated as the government agency in charge of implementing a requirement in the 1967 Outer Space Treaty that governments authorize and continually supervise the actions of their non-governmental entities, like companies.  FAA/AST regulates commercial launches and reentries, NOAA regulates commercial remote sensing satellites, and the Federal Communications Commission regulates commercial communications satellites, but no agency has been appointed to regulate activities such as asteroid mining or commercial activities on the lunar surface.  He thinks FAA/AST should expand its role to do so.

House SS&T Lays Out Work Plan for 2016, Including NASA and NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Feb-2016 (Updated: 26-Feb-2016 06:33 PM)

The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) committee has released its annual "Views and Estimates" report for the coming year that lays out its plans for 2016.  The NASA section contains familiar themes -- reduce NASA's earth science funding, keep the Space Launch System (SLS) on track, and prohibit funds for the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The NOAA section focuses on the commercial weather data pilot project created by the committee and NOAA's Polar Follow On program.

The report is entitled "Fiscal Year GOP Views and Estimates," indicating they are the views and estimates only of the committee's Republican majority.

House SS&T is an authorizing committee that conducts oversight of NASA and writes legislation setting policy and recommending funding levels.   NASA currently does not have an authorization bill with recommended funding levels since the last version, enacted in 2010, covered only through 2013.  The policy provisions remain in force until and unless they are changed by a subsequent law.   The House passed a 2015 NASA authorization bill last year, but the Senate did not act on it.   This committee approved a 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill (H.R. 2039) last year as well, but there has been no further action (it was approved on a party-line vote).

The report says that the committee this year will:

  • maintain NASA's budget at the FY2016 appropriated level of $19.3 billion;

  • reduce FY2017 funding for NASA's earth science program to $1.45 billion, the level authorized in H.R. 2039, and reallocate the resulting $471 million to planetary science, heliophysics, Orion, exploration R&D, and exploration ground systems;

  • reject any proposed cut to SLS and keep it on track for first launch (EM-1, without a crew) in calendar year (CY) 2018 and second launch (EM-2, with a crew) in CY2021; and 

  • prohibit any NASA resources from being spent on the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and direct NASA instead to conduct pre-formulation studies for a Mars fly mission. The report goes on to note that Near Earth Object (NEO) survey, detection, and characterization are not unique to ARM and "additional NASA resources could be used to help NASA meet the long-standing goals of the Congressionally-mandated George E. Brown, Jr.  NEO Survey Program."

NASA has met the first goal of the George E. Brown Jr. NEO Survey Program -- locating and cataloging 90 percent of NEOs larger than 1 kilometer -- but has indicated that it will not be able to meet the second goal of locating 90 percent of those 140 meters or more in diameter by 2020.  NASA's NEO program, part of the Science Mission Directorate, is currently funded at $50 million per year and the FY2017 request is for that amount.

The committee held a hearing yesterday on a bill introduced by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) recommending changes to how NASA is managed and related topics.  A summary will be posted soon.

NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce and does not have an authorization bill similar to NASA's, so policy matters are dealt with in other legislation.  The House passed the Weather Forecasting and Research Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) last year.

Regarding NOAA's satellite activities, in this Views and Estimates report the committee says it will:

  • provide the remaining $6 million authorized in H.R. 1561 for a commercial weather data pilot project ($3 million was appropriated for FY2016); and

  • make funding for NOAA's Polar Follow On (PFO) program to build the second set of Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) satellites (JPSS-3 and JPSS-4) contingent on certification "of no feasibility of commercial data or satellite alternatives."   Appropriators approved the requested $370 million to begin PFO in FY2016; the FY2017 request is $383 million.

The committee also oversees the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).  Last year, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (P.L. 114-90) was enacted and the Views and Estimates report states that implementation of the act should not increase AST's activities in FY2017 compared with FY2016.  The President is requesting $19.8 million for AST this year, a $2 million increase over FY2016.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the NEO program's current goal is locating asteroids 140 kilometers or more in diameter.  It is 140 meters, not kilometers.

House Appropriators Blast Obama Budget "Gimmick"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Feb-2016 (Updated: 24-Feb-2016 05:43 AM)

Two House appropriators blasted the Obama Administration today for its budget "gimmick" of requesting funds for the Department of Commerce  (DOC) from both the discretionary part of the federal budget and from "mandatory" spending.   The Administration is using the same approach to request funding for NASA.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee and its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee respectively, made their comments today (February 23) at a CJS hearing on DOC's FY2017 budget request.   NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce, but NOAA's satellite programs were barely mentioned.

Culberson said in his opening statement that he and other committee members were concerned that the President's request for DOC includes "more than $2 billion in new mandatory spending. Frankly they're just gimmicks including such things as a $10 a barrel tax on oil, which is not likely to happen. The President's request is not realistic and makes the work of this committee more difficult."

Rogers pointed out that Congress and the Administration agreed on budget caps for FY2016 and FY2017 last year and he is "disappointed" that the FY2017 budget request does not abide by them and is full of "gimmicks" making the budget "effectively DOA" or dead on arrival.  DOC is requesting $9.7 billion in discretionary spending, a 5 percent increase over FY2016, Rogers said, plus $2 billion in mandatory funding, which is "unrealistic to say the very least."  At a time when Congress is reining in discretionary spending and the public is "alarmed" at the increases required to pay for mandatory programs, DOC is requesting those funds "as if you didn't know that would make me mad," he exclaimed.   Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker clarified that the $2 billion in mandatory spending would be spent over 5 years.

The hearing addressed a broad range of the Department of Commerce's responsibilities, such as administering the Internet's Domain Name System, conducting the decennial census, and overseeing patents, trade, manufacturing, and ocean resources including fisheries.  The only mention of NOAA's satellite programs was a comment by Culberson in his opening statement that he wants to ensure they meet their cost and schedule guidelines.   The CJS subcommittee typically has a separate hearing on NOAA's budget request where the satellite programs are discussed in more detail.

The significance of this hearing is the rejection of the President's attempt to use mandatory spending to fund part of DOC's activities, an approach he is also using with NASA and several other agencies.  

The federal budget is divided into mandatory and discretionary spending. Mandatory spending, as the term implies, must be spent because of laws already in force that set out requirements for the funds to be paid, such as Social Security or Medicare payments to people eligible for benefits. Mandatory spending also includes interest that must be paid on the national debt, for example. Discretionary spending, conversely, is the money that Congress chooses to spend (or not) each year through the appropriations process.   NASA and DOC have always been funded from discretionary funds. 

NASA displays its budget request as $19.025 billion, but that is composed of $18.262 billion in appropriated funds from the discretionary part of the federal budget and $763 million from the mandatory funds.  Without the $763 million in mandatory funds, the President's request is a $1 billion cut from its FY2016 funding level.  (See's fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request for more information.)

It does not appear that any of the $2 billion over five years from mandatory funds in DOC's budget is for NOAA's satellite programs, however.  They are funded through the Procurement, Acquisition and Construction (PAC) account of NOAA's budget.  The Office of Management and Budget's (OMB's) Table 29-1 shows $100 million in FY2017 in PAC funding as being part of this mandatory proposal, but the chapter on the National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Services (NESDIS) in NOAA's budget "blue book" makes no mention of mandatory spending, although it is mentioned for other NOAA activities.

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