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What's Happening in Space Policy January 1-6, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jan-2017 (Updated: 01-Jan-2017 01:33 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 1-6, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2017 and, on Tuesday, to the 115th Congress.  Under the Constitution, a new session of Congress begins on January 3 of each year.  The second session of the 114th Congress officially will end and the first session of the 115th Congress will begin at 12:00 pm ET that day.

The House will meet at 11:00 am on Tuesday for legislative business to end the 114th Congress (to adjourn "sine die" -- without a day for that Congress to reconvene) and then will meet at noon to convene the 115th Congress.  They will begin with a recorded quorum call followed by the election of the Speaker of the House (Rep. Paul Ryan is expected to win that vote) and swearing in of the other members.  The House will be composed of 241 Republicans (a net loss of six seats) and 194 Democrats (a net gain of six seats).  Several pieces of legislation are scheduled for floor action this coming week, but none related to the space program judging by their titles. They can't be officially introduced and assigned bill numbers until the 115th Congress convenes, but the House Majority Leader's website lists their titles. 

The Senate will meet on Tuesday in pro forma session at 11:55 am ET to close the 114th Congress.  The Senate website doesn't say so, but presumably it also will convene for the 115th Congress at noon and swear in its members.  The Senate will be composed of 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats and 2 Independents (Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who remained an Independent throughout his run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Angus King of Maine). That is a net loss of two seats for Republicans and a net gain of two seats for Democrats. The two Independents caucus with the Democrats so it is essentially a 52-48 split.

The only hearing on either side of the Hill that we've seen posted is on foreign cyber threats to the United States.  That's before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday at 9:30 am ET.  Not really space-related, but certainly of broad interest.  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre III, and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command/Director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Services Adm. Michael Rogers are the witnesses.

On Friday, the House and Senate will meet in joint session at 1:00 pm ET to count the Electoral College votes officially, bringing the 2016 presidential election to an end.  On December 19, the electors cast their votes.  Donald Trump received 306, Hillary Clinton 232, making Trump the winner.  Clinton won the popular vote by about 2.9 million, but in the U.S. system, it is the Electoral College vote that determines the outcome.  Trump will be sworn in at noon ET on January 20.  Barack Obama remains President until then.

Outside the Beltway, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) will hold its winter meeting in Grapevine, TX.   This is where the world's astronomers and astrophysicists get together and discuss recent discoveries and future plans.  Always fascinating, but usually one has to be there to learn about it in real time. The sessions and press conferences are not publicly webcast.  Only a few are webcast for the media (a special password is required; instructions for obtaining it are on the conference's website).  However, some archived webcasts are made available later.

NASA will hold a press conference at Johnson Space Center on Wednesday to discuss two upcoming spacewalks -- the first is on Friday -- to upgrade the International Space Station's electrical power system.  NASA TV will cover the press conference and the spacewalk.

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

Tuesday, January 3

  • 115th Congress convenes

Tuesday-Saturday, January 3-7

Wednesday, January 4

Friday, January 6

New Chinese 5-Year Space Plan Offers Few Surprises

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Dec-2016 (Updated: 28-Dec-2016 02:18 AM)

China released its latest 5-year plan for space activities today.  While it states that China will "unremittingly" pursue the "dream" of building itself into a space power, the plan itself offers only modest goals for that period, most of which have been discussed openly for some time. They include a multi-modular space station in the early 2020s, continued robotic exploration of the Moon, and a robotic Mars orbiter/lander/rover in 2020. Bolder goals apparently are in the works in the longer term, however.   A Chinese space official said at an associated press conference that a new super-heavy lift rocket is planned for around 2030.

This is the fourth in a series of 5-year plans -- called "white papers" -- that summarize prior achievements and lay out the path forward.  The earlier versions were released in 2000, 2006 and 2011.  The 2011 plan also was modest, but mentioned preliminary studies of human lunar landings.  Today's document is silent on that topic, saying only that China wants to "lay a foundation for exploring and developing cislunar space."  For the near-term, space stations in earth orbit are the focus.  The white paper notes China's well-known plan to launch a robotic cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, to its Tiangong-2 space station in 2017.  Tiangong-2 was launched in September 2016 and was occupied by a two-man crew for 30 days in October-November, the longest Chinese human spaceflight to date.  It is currently unoccupied and no one will be aboard when Tianzhou-1 docks and conducts a refueling test.  The launch is scheduled for April.

Tiangong-2 is small, just 8.6 metric tons, but China has said for years that it will orbit a three-module 60-ton space station by 2022 or 2023.  The new white paper provides no clarification on the timing, saying only that "We aim to complete the main research and development work on the space station modules, and start assembly and operation of the space station" within the 5-year period.

Robotic exploration of the Moon remains a prominent theme.  China has a three-prong strategy to send spacecraft successively to orbit, land, and return a sample from the Moon.  It accomplished the first two of those goals already with its Chang'e-1, -2 and -3 spacecraft.  Chang'e-3 was a lander that deployed the Yutu rover in 2013.  Although the rover suffered a mechanical failure and did not achieve all of its objectives, it and the lander transmitted data back to Earth long after their design lifetimes, as recently as this year.

The lunar sample return mission, Chang'e-5, is scheduled for launch in 2017 as restated today.  The white paper also confirms that Chang'e-4, originally designed as a backup for Chang'e-3, instead will break new ground by landing on the far side of the Moon, the first spacecraft designed to make a soft landing there.  The far side of the Moon always faces away from Earth, so a communications satellite will be needed to relay signals back to ground stations. Today's white paper confirms that Chang'e-4 will be launched in 2018 and the relay satellite will be positioned at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point.

The white paper reasserts China's plan to launch a robotic orbiter/lander/rover to Mars in 2020.  China's only prior attempt at Mars exploration was a small orbiter included in Russia's unsuccessful Phobos-Grunt mission.  It also says that studies and technological research will be conducted for a Mars sample return mission, asteroid exploration, and exploration of the Jupiter system, as well as research into the origin and evolution of the solar system and the search for extraterrestrial life.  No time frame is provided for launching spacecraft to achieve any of those objectives.

The white paper lists many earth-orbiting space science and space applications projects that are planned, as well as development of new launch vehicles.  China has introduced four new launch vehicles in the past 15 months, three of which use environmentally-friendly (liquid oxygen/kerosene) fuel:  Long March 5, Long March 6 and Long March 7.  A solid-fueled Long March 11 also had its first flight.  Long March 6 and 11 are for very small satellites, Long March 7 is for medium-sized satellites, and Long March 5 is China's largest rocket to date.  Capable of placing 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), it is slightly smaller than the U.S. Delta IV Heavy (28.4 metric tons to LEO).  

China has said in the past that it is studying a much larger rocket, Long March 9, capable of placing 130 metric tons into low Earth orbit, similar to the U.S. Space Launch System now in development.  The white paper makes no promises about when such a rocket will be ready, noting the significant research and development that is first required: "Endeavors will be made to research key technologies and further study the plans for developing heavy-lift launch vehicles. Breakthroughs are expected in key technologies ... for high thrust liquid oxygen and kerosene engines, and oxygen and hydrogen engines of such launch vehicles.  Thereafter the heavy-lift launch vehicle project will be activated." 

At a press conference, however, Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, was more explicit, saying that a maiden launch is expected around 2030.  He noted the need "to make progress in the heavy-lift carrier rocket's engine first, to create conditions for the whole project."  (A brief clip from the press conference, with English subtitles, is posted on YouTube.)

The white paper provides China's overall space vision:  "To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly."  It repeatedly asserts that China is committed to peaceful exploration and utilization of space and is opposed to "weaponization of or an arms race in outer space."  Perhaps not surprisingly, no mention is made of China's antisatellite (ASAT) activities, such as the 2007 test against one of its own satellites that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in the heavily-used LEO region.  Instead, the report notes that China has improved monitoring, mitigation of, early warning and protection against space debris.

Innovation, independence and self-reliance are other themes stressed in the report. 

China's space program is under the jurisdiction of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).  While in the United States it is common to distinguish among civil, commercial and national security space activities (although there clearly is overlap), such distinctions are not readily drawn in the Chinese program.  The white paper focuses on programs that generally would be considered civil space activities here, with national security explicitly mentioned only in broad terms.  The document's sections explaining the space program's purposes and vision, for example, state that the space program will "meet the demands of economic, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress" and "to effectively and reliably guarantee national security...." 

While it stresses the need for China to achieve its space goals independently, the white paper also highlights China's interest in international cooperation:  "China will promote the lofty cause of peace and development together with other countries."   In the past 5 years, China has signed 43 cooperative agreements or memoranda of understanding with 29 countries, it states, including Russia, the European Space Agency, Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States.  The cooperation with the United States is through the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue and concerns space debris, space weather and response to global climate change.


NASA Closing in on Root Cause of JWST Vibration Test Anomaly

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Dec-2016 (Updated: 23-Dec-2016 11:04 PM)

NASA is closing in on the root cause of the anomalous results produced by a December 3 vibration test on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  Thomas Zurbuchen, the new head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD), told that dealing with the problem likely will consume one of the remaining six months of schedule reserve.

NASA is posting information about the anomalous test results and the agency's subsequent actions on a special JWST webpage: Status.html.   The Twitter feed for the program, @NASAWebb, has not carried any news about the problem.

During the December 3 vibration test, accelerometers on the telescope "detected anomalous readings during a particular test," the website posting states.  Today's update adds that the team is making "good progress" in identifying the root cause and two "low level vibrations" have been successfully conducted.   Analysis of the tests is ongoing "with the goal of having a review of their findings, conclusions and plans for resuming vibration testing in January."

Via email, Zurbuchen added that before the December 3 test, the program had approximately six months of schedule reserve and "we are now down to something less, probably closer to around 5 months." The project is still "trending high in reserves compared to what one would expect for a project at this time of development," he said, and the October 2018 launch date is unchanged.   Some of the reserves could be regained by rephasing of tasks and "I am sure we will try hard to do that early [in] 2017."

Zurbuchen became Associate Administrator for SMD on October 3, succeeding John Grunsfeld.  He is a heliophysicst who previously was a professor of space science and engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

After repeated delays and cost growth, the JWST program was rebaselined in 2011 and has been holding to that new schedule (launch in October 2018) and cost estimate ($8 billion for development) ever since.  Thirteen months of schedule reserve were built into the new plan.   Reserve is just that -- a margin to deal with unexpected problems like this one. Conceptually, a program would utilize all of its schedule reserve by the launch date.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is required by Congress to assess JWST's progress every year.  Its most recent report, released two weeks ago, made no recommendations, but noted that the program's success "hinges on NASA's ability to anticipate, identify, and respond to" challenges in a "timely and cost-effective manner."

SAIC Recommends Civil Agency for Orbital Traffic Management, But Not Which One

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Dec-2016 (Updated: 23-Dec-2016 12:25 AM)

In a report for NASA required by the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA), SAIC is recommending that a civil government agency take responsibility for orbital traffic management, but it does not specify which agency that should be. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its parent, the Department of Transportation (DOT), are often the center of attention in orbital -- or space -- traffic management discussions, but SAIC explained that the terms of reference for its study did not ask for such a recommendation.

Section 109 of CSLCA makes a sense of Congress statement that an "improved framework" may be needed for "space traffic management" of U.S. government and private sector assets in outer space and orbital debris mitigation.  It then directs that NASA, in consultation with DOT, DOD, the FCC, and the Department of Commerce, contract with an independent systems engineering and technical assistance organization to "study alternate frameworks for the management of space traffic and orbital activities."  It goes on to specify what the study should consider and asks for recommendations on "the appropriate framework for the protection of the health, safety, and welfare of the public and economic vitality of the space industry."

SAIC was selected to conduct the study.  Its final report was submitted to NASA on November 21.  It begins by noting that definitions of terms like "space traffic management" vary and consequently creates its own definitions for the purpose of the study. It chooses to use "orbital traffic management" rather than "space traffic management" because it believes the latter "implies a specific approach."

The study lays out five alternative frameworks: private space traffic monitoring and coordination, DOD-based space traffic safety monitoring and data sharing (status quo), civil-based space traffic safety monitoring and facilitation, civil-based space traffic safety monitoring and coordination, and civil-based space traffic management.  It compares them in terms of three objectives: ensure safety of the space domain, protect and enhance national security space interests, and ensure the economic vitality of the space domain and space industrial base.

SAIC concluded that the current framework -- where DOD tracks space objects and provides conjunction analyses to other U.S. government as well as commercial and foreign entities -- is insufficient and a "holistic approach" is needed, led by a civil government agency. "However, no assumptions or recommendations are made as to which specific civil agency could or should be designated, as such a recommendation was not specified by Congress as a report product."

Six tasks are recommended for the agency ranging from facilitating privately-led development of best practices, guidelines and standards, to providing advisory products and services in order to enhance operational safety, to providing leadership in technical and operations matters related to Space Traffic Safety in international fora and developing data-sharing relationships with international owner-operators and partners.

The agency should be provided with appropriate liability indemnification, SAIC continues, but "at this time it should not have authorities to dictate real-time operational decisions (e.g. mandating a collision avoidance maneuver)."  Legislation is needed to implement the recommended framework and a transition period will be needed to ensure that the products and services currently provided by DOD are not interrupted.

The SAIC conclusions and recommendations are in line with those advanced by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and George Nield, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) for the past several years, although they make clear they want DOT to be the designated civil agency.  They want to start with FAA/AST assuming responsibility from DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) for providing Space Situational Awareness (SSA) data and conjunction analyses to non-military users so JSPoC can focus on its core mission of meeting military requirements.  Space traffic management would come later.  Although the definitions are not precise, as SAIC notes, generally speaking space "traffic management" implies that the agency could require spacecraft operators to move their satellites, rather than simply informing them that a collision is possible.  Bridenstine's American Space Renaissance Act would have directed that a lead agency for space traffic management be designated, and regulations promulgated, by September 2020.

An April 2016 report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) proposed a first step, recommending that the Secretary of Transportation, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, examine planned and actual operational trajectories of space objects and advise satellite operators so as to prevent collisions.  In September, DOT reported to Congress that it is feasible for DOT to take on the role of providing SSA data to commercial and foreign entities.  It estimated that an initial investment of $20 million would be needed, with additional recurring costs for more personnel.

JWST Vibration Test Results in "Anomalous Readings"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Dec-2016 (Updated: 21-Dec-2016 11:36 PM)

Vibration tests of NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) resulted in "anomalous readings" according to NASA.  The $8 billion telescope is undergoing a series of tests in preparation for its 2018 launch.

JWST is often described as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope although it will study the universe in a different part of the electromagnetic spectrum (infrared) and will not be serviced by space shuttle astronauts.  The space shuttle servicing missions brought a lot of attention to Hubble and enabled the telescope and its instruments to be repaired and upgraded five times over its 26 year (so far) lifetime.

The space shuttle program was terminated in 2011 and, in any case, JWST will not be in Earth orbit.  Instead it will be located 1.5 million kilometers away at the Sun-Earth L-2 Lagrange point.  It has a 5-year design lifetime, although many expect it will operate for at least twice that long.  Scientifically, JWST will take the next step beyond Hubble to study objects even deeper into the universe.  The light from such objects is "redshifted" into the infrared band, whereas Hubble's instruments observe primarily in the ultraviolet and visible wavelengths.

The JWST program experienced considerable cost overruns and schedule delays, but since a program management revamping in 2011, has been holding to its revised cost and schedule estimates.   Congress capped the development cost at $8 billion, with another $700 million for operations.The European Space Agency (ESA) is providing the October 2018 launch on an Ariane rocket at no cost to NASA as a partner in the program.

The revised schedule includes several months of margin in case unexpected problems, such as this one, are encountered.

NASA states that during a December 3 vibration test, "accelerometers attached to the telescope detected anomalous readings during a particular test.  Further tests to identify the source of the anomaly are underway."   No damage to the telescope has been found so far.

More details will be provided when they are available.

State Department Legal Advisor: The Outer Space Treaty -- 50 Years On

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Dec-2016 (Updated: 14-Dec-2016 11:23 PM)

The foundational document that sets international law for conducting space activities -- the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (OST) -- is about to turn 50.  State Department Legal Advisor Brian Egan discussed the relevance of the Treaty today and its future at the 11th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law last week.  The annual symposium is held under the aegis of the International Institute of Space Law (IISL).

Officially named the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, the OST was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on December 19, 1966, opened for signature on January 27, 1967 and entered into force on October 10, 1967.

Article VI, which requires that governments authorize and continually supervise the activities of their non-governmental entities, like companies, puts it at the center of today's debate over commercial space activities.  Specifically the question is how to ensure that proposed U.S. entrepreneurial ventures like private space stations, satellite servicing, habitats on the Moon, and asteroid mining comply with those obligations.   Experts at the December 7 Galloway space law symposium debated many of those issues.  Egan focused his comments on the relevance of the OST today and the outlook for the next 50 years.  

He noted that the Commercial Space Launch and Competitiveness Act (CSLCA, also called the Space Resource Exploitation and Utilization Act) enacted last year generated confusion internationally.  Some countries concluded that the United States was abrogating its obligations under the OST by granting property rights to space resources obtained by U.S. companies.  "In fact it is just the opposite," he stressed, because CSLCA clearly states that such rights must be consistent with U.S. international obligations and are subject to authorization and continuing supervision by the U.S. government as required by Article VI.

Egan noted that Article IX is also important in the context of innovative commercial space activities.  It requires that signatories to the Treaty avoid "harmful contamination" of the Moon and other celestial bodies and adopt "appropriate measures for that purpose."  The U.S. government recently approved an application by Moon Express to land a spacecraft on the surface of the Moon after it voluntarily agreed to comply with international planetary protection guidelines established by the international Committee on Space Research (COSPAR).  He stressed that the approval was specific to this one short-duration mission and the State Department's ability to authorize more extensive missions in the future requires "a more robust authorization framework ... to enable conditional approval where necessary."

Importantly, as the next 50 years of the OST unfold, the approach to avoiding harmful contamination of celestial bodies may evolve, Egan said.  The "open-textured" nature of the OST "accommodates such developments" by avoiding precise definitions of terms like harmful contamination that may change over time.

"Eilene Galloway was prescient about this need for flexibility in anticipation of the unforeseen -- and unforeseeable -- developments.  In a paper she delivered in the Hague in 1958, she cautioned that unless we study legal problems 'in conjunction with the developing facts of science and technology ... our interplanetary thinking will be earthbound by tradition and precedent at a time when creative predictions should enable us to keep international law in pace with scientific achievement.'"

Egan concluded that the Treaty "does not attempt to answer every legal question directly, or speak to any activity specifically" but is a "framework" to address "new capabilities and activities ... and the legal questions such activities inevitably generate.  If the preparations for future space activities underway in the United States and other nations are any indication, the Treaty will serve this function well into its second half century and beyond."

Dennis Burnett, IISL Treasurer and the lead organizer of the Galloway Symposium, pointed out that this was the first official statement on the OST by a State Department Legal Advisor in more than 30 years.

Galloway Symposium Tees Up Space Issues for the 115th Congress

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Dec-2016 (Updated: 14-Dec-2016 11:23 PM)

The Galloway Space Law Symposium last week focused on two topics likely to be at the top of the list of civil and commercial space issues in the 115th Congress – what the incoming Trump Administration has in mind for NASA and how to ensure that new types of commercial space activities comply with U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty.

The 11th Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law, sponsored by the International Institute of Space Law (IISL), took place at the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C. on December 7.  

Trump and NASA.  Trump’s position on NASA and the space program overall is largely unknown, but the opening keynote speaker, former Congressman Bob Walker, has written and spoken about what it might be.  He is not officially a member of the Trump transition team, but is an adviser to it and a respected voice in Republican space circles.

Walker originally was working for the presidential campaign of Ohio Governor John Kasich, but after Kasich withdrew he was tapped with little notice to write up the broad outlines of a Trump space policy just before the election.  He and Peter Navarro co-authored two op-eds, on civil and national security space respectively, in Space News.  Walker also spoke to a meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in October.

At the Galloway Symposium, he reiterated what he had said in those other forums while stressing that he was not officially speaking for the Trump transition team.  He is proposing a space policy that is –

  • Visionary:  NASA should not focus on a single deep space human destination like Mars, but on human exploration of the entire solar system by the end of the century in order to drive technology development.
  • Disruptive:  move Earth-centric research to other government agencies; turn the ISS over to a quasi-public company and use it as a public research facility with refurbishment done with commercial and international assets. 
  • Coordinating:  reinstate the White House National Space Council to better coordinate U.S. space activities to take advantage not only of U.S. government resources, but those available from commercial and international partners.
  • Resilient:  make national security space assets more resilient by having larger constellations of satellites that are serviced robotically; increase investments in hypersonics.

Based on his interactions with the Trump campaign and transition teams, he said he anticipates a Trump Administration where Vice President Mike Pence essentially serves as Prime Minister while Trump is a “national figure” doing what he believes is necessary to move the country forward.

Just prior to the symposium Trump called for cancellation of Boeing’s contract to build a replacement Air Force One aircraft because it is too expensive.  Asked what that may forebode for another Boeing program, NASA’s Space Launch System, Walker said he viewed Trump’s comments as part of a negotiation – setting the parameters of a new deal to reduce costs.  He urged the audience to remember that Trump is not a politician, but a real estate deal-maker whose premise is that the government needs to do a better job of interacting with the private sector to get what it needs at the best price.

Walker did not speculate on who might be the next NASA Administrator, but firmly asserted that he is not interested in the job.  (He is a very successful lobbyist with the Wexler|Walker firm.)

Commercial Space and the Outer Space Treaty.   The issue that dominated the day was how to ensure U.S. compliance with its obligations under the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, especially Article VI that requires governments to authorize and continually supervise the activities of non-government entities, like companies.

It is a deeply complex set of arguments that turn as much on domestic law and politics (the relative roles of the Executive and Legislative Branches, and how minimal a minimal set of regulations can be yet still be effective) as on international space law (whether or not the treaty is self-executing, or the definition of “activities”).

The goal of the Obama Administration, Congress and industry is to find a solution that empowers U.S. companies to engage in new types of commercial activities that range from building private space stations to satellite servicing to placing habitats on the Moon to mining asteroids.  That means creating a legal and regulatory environment where the State Department – guardian of U.S. treaty obligations – can say “yes” or “yes, with the following conditions,” rather than “no” to a proposed commercial activity.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) has been a leader in Congress on these issues.   He chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee.  In a morning keynote, he recapped his proposed solution – legislation and a minimal set of regulations to provide the certainty companies say they need in order to attract investors.  Later in the day, a panel of three space lawyers debated the issues:   Diane Howard, Assistant Professor, Commercial Space Operations, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University; Laura Montgomery, recently retired as Manager of the FAA’s Space Law Office and now in private practice; and Matthew Schafer, Director of Space Cyber & Telecom at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Law School.

Other panels of speakers also addressed aspects of the debate, which is too complex to summarize here (we will post a separate story later).   In a nutshell, earlier this year it appeared that consensus was developing between government and industry to designate FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) as the government entity to authorize and continually supervise commercial in-space activities.  That would be an expansion of its current role in granting permits and licenses for launches and reentries.

This fall, however, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chairman of the Space Subcommittee of House SS&T, called for a total regulatory rethink and said he planned to hold hearings next year.  About the same time, Montgomery, an attorney who spent more than 20 years at the FAA working commercial space issues, also came forward with a different interpretation of what is required to comply with the treaty.

All of these ideas were debated at the Galloway Symposium.  There was no resolution and Babin’s hearings, whenever they take place, likely will elucidate where the various parties stand. Some commercial activities, like space mining, may be decades away.  Others, like private space stations or satellite servicing, loom larger, arguing for a near-term decision at least on what government office should be designated as the responsible entity for whatever laws or regulations are to come.

As an example of the gulf between the various points of view, Montgomery said “as a former regulator, I can say that the only thing worse than ambiguity is clarity” because while “you’d think … [with] clarity, you’re going to know exactly what to do, until you find out you don’t want to do the thing they make you do.”   Responding to that comment, Chris Hearsey, Director of Legislative Affairs for Bigelow Aerospace, which wants to build space stations and habitats, said on the next panel that businesses “don’t want ambiguity.”  “I can’t tell Mr. Bigelow how he can plan his missions, I can’t tell him what to tell customers unless we know what the boundaries are for us.”

Root Cause of Progress MS-04 Failure Still a Mystery

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2016 (Updated: 11-Dec-2016 09:47 AM)

The launch failure of Russia's Progress MS-04 cargo spacecraft was due to an emergency shutdown of the third stage engine, which occurred at the same time as premature separation between the third stage and the spacecraft according to Russia's Mission Control Center.  Further details were not officially released, but Anatoly Zak, editor of, has gleaned more insight from industry sources.

Progress MS-04, the fourth of this latest version of Russia's venerable robotic space station resupply spacecraft, was lost 382 seconds after launch on December 1, 2016.  Launched by a Soyuz-U rocket, it was carrying 2.6 metric tons of fuel, water, oxygen and other supplies to the International Space Station (ISS).  NASA refers to this as Progress 65 or 65P because it is the 65th Progress mission to the ISS, but Progress has been in use since 1978 when it debuted as a resupply vehicle for the Soviet Union's Salyut 6 space station.  It continued in use for the Soviet Salyut 7 and Mir space stations and now in the ISS era.

Russia's news agency TASS reported on December 7 that the Mission Control Center issued a statement that Progress MS-04 did not reach orbit "due to the emergency shutdown" of the third stage engine.  Russia's space state corporation Roscosmos has not issued any statements about the failure since December 6 when it said search teams had arrived in the Tuva Republic in Siberia to look for debris.

Zak reports that postings on the Russian online forum Novosti Kosmonavtiki (Space News) by Russian space industry sources reveal more about what they know of the last moments of flight.   Briefly, the third stage and the spacecraft separated, for unknown reasons, 140 seconds prematurely.  The spacecraft interpreted the separation as the normal event that would occur once it was in orbit and began deploying its antennas and preparing its attitude control thrusters.  The third stage was still firing and bumped into the spacecraft, sending it tumbling and leading to catastrophic failure of both.  Zak provides many more details and some of the speculation as to possible causes.

The bottom line, however, is that they still do not know why the third stage and the spacecraft separated early.

Russia launches four or five Progress spacecraft to the ISS each year.  The U.S. SpaceX Dragon and Orbital ATK Cygnus spacecraft, as well as Japan's HTV, also resupply the station.  The most recent HTV, HTV6 (or Kounotori 6), was launched on Friday morning and will dock with ISS on Tuesday, so the six-person ISS crew is well supplied.  One of the main functions of Progress MS-04, however, was to refuel the space station's engines that are used to periodically raise its orbit.  Only Progress can perform that task.

What's Happening in Space Policy December 11-31, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Dec-2016 (Updated: 11-Dec-2016 12:22 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for December 11-31, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess for the rest of the year.

During the Weeks

Congress has completed its legislative business for the year.  Officially the 114th Congress ends at noon on January 3, 2017 when the 115th Congress begins, but no more legislative activity is scheduled between now and then.

With the holidays looming, few other space policy events are scheduled for the rest of the year, so this edition of “What’s Happening” covers through the end of 2016.

This coming week still has a few important events, most notably, perhaps, the annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) fall meeting in San Francisco.   It begins on Monday, but today (Sunday), an associated public lecture is scheduled (it will be livestreamed) about how Mars landing sites are selected.  In this case, it is the Mars 2020 landing site.  The lecture is at noon Pacific Time (3:00 pm ET) and features a NASA astrobiologist (Michael Meyer), a CalTech geologist (Bethany Ehlmann), and a high school student (Alex Longo).

AGU will livestream 75 of its more than 1800 scientific sessions during the week-long meeting and NASA TV will broadcast several press conferences and other events in which the agency is engaged.  Unfortunately, Tuesday’s Town Hall meeting on the status of the National Academies’ Decadal Survey on Earth Science and Applications from Space (ESAS) isn’t on either list.

Speaking of Earth science, on Monday morning, weather permitting (and the forecast isn’t very good), NASA will launch a constellation of eight microsatellites using Orbital ATK’s air-launched Pegasus rocket.  The Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System (CYGNSS) will measure ocean surface winds in and near the eyes of hurricanes to improve hurricane intensity forecasts.  NASA TV will cover the launch.

The Committee on Biological and Physical Sciences in Space of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will meet Tuesday-Wednesday at the Academies’ Beckman Center in Irvine, CA.  Sessions on the first day are closed, but almost all day on Wednesday is open and will be available by WebEx.

On a completely different topic, the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance will hold a briefing on Capitol Hill on developing a space-based sensor layer for missile defense on Wednesday. Maj. Gen. Roger Teague, Director of Space Programs for the Air Force Acquisitions Office, and Richard Matlock, Program Executive for Advanced Technology at the Missile Defense Agency, are the speakers.

After that, the calendar is empty till the New Year begins.  Unless some new events emerge, we will not publish a “What’s Happening” article until January 1.  We wish all of you a happy and restful holiday season.  (And we’ll still be here posting news stories as needed.)

The events we know about through December 31 are shown below.  Check back throughout the weeks for additional meetings we learn about later and post to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday, December 11

Monday, December 12

Monday-Friday, December 12-16

  • AGU Fall Meeting, Moscone Center, San Francisco (some sessions and press conferences will be livestreamed by AGU or NASA)

Tuesday, December 13

Tuesday-Wednesday, December 13-14

Wednesday, December 14

Senate Passes NASA Authorization at Last Minute, Too Late for House Action This Year

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Dec-2016 (Updated: 10-Dec-2016 02:37 PM)

The Senate completed its legislative business for the 114th Congress in the early hours this morning.   In its last legislative day, it passed dozens of bills by unanimous consent, including the NASA Transition Authorization Act.  The House already has left, so it is too late for the bill to be finalized this year, but it could serve as the basis for a new bill in the next Congress.  A link to the text of the bill as passed is available below.

The most recent NASA authorization act was enacted in 2010.  It recommended funding levels only through FY2013, but the policy provisions remain in force until or unless changed by future legislation.  The House passed a bill in 2014, but the Senate did not take it up.  In February 2015, the House passed another bill (H.R. 810), very similar to the one passed in 2014.  In April 2015, the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved a new bill, H.R. 2039, for FY2016-2017, but on a strictly party-line vote primarily because it included deep cuts to NASA's Earth science program.  The bill never advanced out of committee.

In September 2016, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved its own bill, S. 3346.  Since that time, the House and Senate have been negotiating a final bill that blends the Senate committee's bill, H.R. 810, and H.R. 2039.

The fruit of that negotiation is the version of S. 3346 that passed the Senate overnight.

The House and Senate have gone home for the year. In the past, Congress would adjourn "sine die" -- "without a day" for returning. That signaled the end of a Congress (which lasts two years, divided into two sessions) and everyone would go home.  However, under the Constitution, the President may appoint people to government positions that require Senate confirmation without such action if the Senate is in recess for three days or more ("recess appointments").  To avoid that, in recent years the Senate (and often the House) has scheduled "pro forma" sessions at three-day intervals whenever it takes a break where one Senator arrives at the chamber and gavels it in and out of session so it is not in recess for more than 3 days. Under the Constitution (Amendment XX), Congress must meet at noon on January 3 each year.  Strictly speaking the 114th Congress, 2nd session ends at 11:59 am ET on January 3 and the 115th Congress, 1st session, begins at 12:00 pm ET on January 3.  The Senate has pro forma sessions scheduled between now and January 3 so recess appointments are not possible, but no legislative business takes place during such sessions.  

Legislation that does not pass in a Congress dies and the effort must begin again in the next Congress.  Bills like this may serve as the basis for new legislation, however, so although there will be no further action in the 114th Congress, its text may remain relevant. 

Congress also did not pass the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bills that fund NASA.  They were approved by the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, but were not passed by either chamber.  NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution that passed the Senate just before midnight that lasts through April 28, 2017. 

Most of the key congressional players for NASA will still be in their positions when the 115th Congress convenes on January 3.  Three exceptions are Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Maryland), the top Democrat on the House SS&T's Space Subcommittee, who ran for Senate and lost; Rep. Mike  Honda (D-California), top Democrat on the House CJS appropriations subcommittee, who lost his reelection bid; and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland), top Democrat on the full Senate Appropriations Committee as well as its CJS subcommittee, who retired.

The hope was to get a new NASA authorization bill passed before a new President took office to codify congressional direction before any changes were made.   Theoretically, that could still happen.  Donald Trump will not become President until January 20, and the House and Senate will be back in session for legislative business beginning January 3.  The text of this bill could be introduced as new legislation and passed in the first weeks of the new Congress.  Anything can happen.  Thus, it is summarized below even though officially it is dead now.

In brief, the 139-page Senate-passed bill does the following:

  • Funding: authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA for FY2017 (future years are not addressed).  That is the same amount as approved by the House Appropriations Committee in the FY2017 CJS bill, and $202 million more than what the Senate Appropriations Committee approved ($19.306 billion).  Authorization bills do not actually provide any money. Only appropriations bills do that, although authorization bills provide guidance to appropriators on how the committees that oversee an agency, like NASA, think the money should be spent.  In this case, the authorization bill allocates the money differently than either appropriations bill.
  • International Space Station (ISS):  offers a sense of Congress that ISS should continue at least until 2024, with an evaluation of extending it to 2028. Amends the 2010 NASA authorization act to direct that NASA may not acquire human spaceflight transportation services to and from ISS from a foreign entity unless certain conditions exist. Requires that commercial crew systems meet NASA human rating requirements. States that it is U.S. policy for NASA to procure commercial cargo services through fair and open competition in compliance with Federal Acquisition Regulations. Offers a sense of Congress that an orderly transition is needed to a future where NASA no longer is the primary supplier and consumer of low Earth orbit (LEO) human spaceflight capabilities and requires biennial reports from NASA on how to achieve that transition.
  • Space Communications: requires a plan on how to meet NASA's LEO and deep space communications and navigation needs for the next 20 years.
  • Indemnification of NASA Launch and Reentry Services:  states that the United States will indemnify launch and reentry service providers from third-party claims, with conditions, for launches that are unusually hazardous or nuclear in nature.
  • Human Deep Space Exploration: amends the 2010 NASA authorization act to state, among other things, that a key objective is to achieve human exploration of "Mars and beyond" through a steppingstone approach. Directs the NASA Administrator to manage programs, including the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, to enable humans to explore "Mars and other destinations" by defining "a series of sustainable steps and conducting planning, research, and technology development on a timetable that is technically and fiscally possible" and the sustainable steps may include intermediate destinations such as the "surface of the Moon, cis-lunar space, near-Earth asteroids, Lagrangian points, and Martian moons." Directs the NASA Administrator to engage with international, academic and industry partners to maximize cost-effectiveness. States that the President may invite ISS partners "and other nations, as appropriate" to participate in a human mission to the surface of Mars "under the leadership of the United States."
  • SLS/Orion:  reaffirms congressional support for these programs and directs the NASA Administrator to develop an SLS upper stage to enable human exploration of deep space.  Directs NASA to conduct the uncrewed Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) launch by 2018 and crewed EM-2 by 2021 "subject to applicable human rating processes and requirements"; to conduct future missions at a rate to ensure safety and operational readiness (and assess other uses for SLS); and to develop a habitat as a key element of the deep space human exploration program.
  • Human Exploration Roadmap:  requires NASA to submit a human exploration roadmap, with extensive language about what it must include, beginning December 1, 2017 with biennial updates.
  • Advanced Space Suits:  requires the NASA Administrator to submit a plan for achieving a new space suit capability for future deep space missions that might also be used on ISS.
  • Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM): requires an evaluation of alternatives to ARRM for demonstrating technologies and capabilities needed for the Journey to Mars.
  • Mars 2033:  requires a study by an independent, non-governmental systems engineering and technical assistance organization to study a human mission to Mars to be launched in 2033 (it does not specify whether it is to orbit or land).
  • Health Care for Former Astronauts:  incorporates the TREAT Act (H.R. 6076), which passed the House (amended) on Wednesday.  The current language is similar to what was in the Senate Commerce Committee version of the bill allowing NASA to provide health care to former astronauts and government payload specialists for conditions resulting from their spaceflights.
  • Science: reaffirms congressional intent that NASA have a balanced and adequately funded science portfolio including small, medium and large space missions, suborbital missions, research and analysis grants, and technology development, with science priorities guided by Decadal Surveys from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  Expresses support specifically for planetary science, especially the Mars 2020 rover and a mission to Europa; the James Webb Space Telescope; and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope.  Amends the list of U.S. objectives for aeronautical and space activities (51 U.S.C. 20102(d)) to add a 10th item -- "the search for life's origins, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe."  Directs the NASA Administrator to contract with the National Academies to develop a science strategy for the study and exploration of exoplanets, to develop a science strategy for astrobiology, and make an assessment of the architecture of the robotic Mars exploration program.  Requires the Administrator to submit reports on how to utilize public private partnerships to study astrobiology and Near Earth Objects (NEOs). Requires the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and the NASA Administrator to submit reports on carrying out a NEO survey program, an analysis of options to divert an object on a collision course with Earth, and a description of efforts to coordinate and cooperate with other countries on discovering and mitigating hazardous asteroids and comets.  Allows NASA to conduct its senior reviews of science mission extensions on a triennial (rather than biennial) basis.  Prohibits NASA from terminating the SOFIA program. Directs OSTP to conduct an analysis of needs for radioisotope power system material for solar system exploration missions.  (The bill does not mention Earth science.)
  • Aeronautics:  expresses support for a robust aeronautics program.  Requires the NASA Administrator to submit roadmaps for research and development of hypersonic and supersonic aircraft and rotorcraft and other runway-independent air vehicles.
  • Space Technology:  establishes as policy that NASA shall develop technologies to support NASA's core missions.  Sets as a goal development of propulsion technologies to shorten the human travel time to Mars.  Requires a report from NASA comparing the agency's space technology investments to the high priority areas identified by the National Academies report on NASA's Space Technology Roadmaps.

The bill also has extensive language on "maximizing efficiency" at NASA that includes a host of issues too numerous to summarize here.  Among them are direction regarding NASA's information technology and cybersecurity activities and the leveraging of commercial satellite servicing capabilities across mission directorates, and requirements for an OSTP report on issues relating to protecting the Apollo landing sites on the Moon, a National Academy of Public Administration review of the effectiveness of the NASA Advisory Council, and a NASA report on concepts and options for removing orbital debris.  The bill also extends by one year NASA's Extended Use Leasing (EUL) authority (51 U.S.C. 20145(g)), which currently sunsets on December 31, 2017.




Events of Interest


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