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UPDATED September 30, 2015 with information about NASA's participation.
Details are scant, but the State Department announced that the first meeting of the U.S.-China Dialogue on Civil Space Cooperation was held today (September 28, 2015) in Beijing.
In a media note, the State Department said the meeting "launches a new initiative to enhance cooperation between the two countries and provide better transparency on a variety of space related topics." Among the topics discussed today were the countries' respective space policies, space debris and the long term sustainability of outer space activities, and ways to cooperate on civil Earth observation activities, space sciences, space weather, and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).
Another meeting will be held in Washington, D.C. in 2016.
The meeting was chaired by the State Department and the China National Space Administration. The media note did not identify which U.S. government agencies participated, but NASA spokesman Allard Beutel confirmed via email on September 29 that NASA was one of the participants.
The decision to inaugurate this "Dialogue" was announced in June following the seventh round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. Chinese President Xi Jinping just visited the United States, with a White House meeting with President Obama on September 25. The State Department's statement today did not mention Xi's visit, however, and this meeting was in Beijing, not Washington.
NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are prohibited by law from engaging with China on bilateral space activities unless they get advance approval from Congress.
This article will be updated if more information becomes available.
The Senate advanced a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government through December 11, 2015 today, all but ending fears of a government shutdown on October 1. House Speaker John Boehner's surprise announcement on Friday that he is stepping down sharply diminished the chances of an October 1 shutdown, but may make a December shutdown instead more likely.
By a vote of 77-19, the Senate agreed to let the CR move forward. A final vote is expected tomorrow. It is a "clean" bill without a policy rider sought by some ultra-conservative Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood.
Assuming the Senate approves the bill tomorrow, it will go to the House where the betting today is that it will pass. Now that he has announced his departure on October 30, Boehner is more free to focus on his goal of keeping the government operating rather than negotiating with the right-wing of his party that vowed not to vote for any bill that did not defund Planned Parenthood.
Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have been saying all year that they will not permit another government shutdown like the one in 2013. In that case, Tea Party Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) refused to agree to a bill that did not repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). After 16 days, Boehner decided to reopen the government by going against that wing of his party and using Democratic votes to pass the bill. It is widely expected that he will do the same when this Senate bill reaches the House tomorrow or Wednesday.
Congress must pass an appropriations bill by midnight Wednesday, the last day of FY2015, in order for the government to open for business on Thursday, the first day of FY2016.
The bill has not passed yet, however, and it is unwise to heave a sigh of relief until it does. Even then, it may be short-lived. Boehner is leaving on October 30 and a new Speaker will have to deal with the same forces in the Republican party to get appropriations passed for the rest of the fiscal year. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) formally announced his candidacy for Speaker today and many consider him the odds-on favorite, but Tea Party challengers are expected.
Whoever wins, the issues are likely to remain the same, so this is just kicking the can down the road. For those worried about whether the government will be open on Thursday, however, it is good news.
NASA has terminated its unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) with the B612 Foundation. The Foundation is trying to raise private funds to build a spacecraft, Sentinel, to hunt for asteroids. B612 says that they are proceeding with their efforts uninterrupted despite the termination.
The B612 Foundation's goal is to "enhance our capability to protect Earth from asteroid impacts." Its CEO, Ed Lu, and Chair Emeritus, Rusty Schweickert, are both former astronauts and have focused for many years on raising awareness of the threats posed to Earth by asteroids and trying to find solutions to address that threat. One of the challenges is finding out where the Earth-threatening asteroids are and while NASA has ground-based programs to achieve that objective, B612 argues that only a spacecraft with infrared sensors in a "Venus-trailing" orbit would have the field of view necessary to really answer that question.
The B612 Foundation is named after the asteroid in the children's story The Little Prince.
NASA is not currently planning to build a dedicated asteroid-hunting spacecraft, although it did re-purpose its earth-orbiting Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE) satellite to focus on asteroid detection in 2013. Launched in 2009, WISE was designed to image the entire sky in the infrared band using super-cooled detectors. It completed its primary mission in September 2010 after exhausting the coolant and was decommissioned, but NASA later determined some of the instruments could still be useful in searching for asteroids. Renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, NEOWISE, it began a three-year observation program in 2013. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is proposing NEOCam, another asteroid-hunting mission, as part of the the Discovery 14 selection process, though competition is stiff and it is far from clear whether it will be chosen as one of semi-finalists from among the 16 proposers, a decision expected soon. It was also proposed in 2006 and 2010.
WISE/NEOWISE was built by Ball Aerospace, which is partnered with B612 on the Sentinel mission (and would also be the prime contractor for NEOCam if it is selected).
B612 is trying to fund the Sentinel mission privately, using mostly philanthropic donations although anyone may contribute.
The nonreimbursable NASA-B612 Foundation agreement was signed by NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier and Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld on May 31, 2012. B612 CEO Ed Lu signed it on June 19, 2012 and was to be in effect for 10 years from that date. Its primary purpose was obtaining NASA technical consulting and agreement for B612 to use NASA tracking facilities for Sentinel after it was launched. In return, B612 would keep NASA informed of the spacecraft's technical characteristics and progress and deliver data from the spacecraft to the Minor Planet Center.
The milestones identified in the agreement were:
NASA spokesmen Dwayne Brown and Dave Steitz confirmed via email that NASA terminated the agreement with B612. Steitz explained that B612 had not met an important milestone in the SAA -- starting Sentinel's development -- and NASA therefore terminated the agreement because "due to limited resources, NASA can no longer afford to reserve funds" to support the project. "NASA believes it is in the best interest of both parties to terminate this agreement but remains open to future opportunities to collaborate with the B612 Foundation," he added.
B612 Vice President for Communications Diane Murphy also confirmed the termination, but said NASA had invited them to return to obtain another SAA when Sentinel's launch date is closer. She noted that "our timeline is dependent on our fundraising -- and while that is going well - it is hard ... and taking longer than we first anticipated." She provided a statement from Lu asserting that the "status of the SAA in no way changes the resolve of the B612 Foundation to move forward. ... We will continue to work independently and together with NASA, the US Congress and others to see our goals realized."
UPDATE: An earlier version of this story said there would be three semi finalists in the Discovery selection, but there were five. They were announced on September 30. NEOCam is one of those five.
Today the House passed a bill that includes a provision extending the "learning period" during which the FAA cannot issue new regulations for commercial human spaceflight for six months. The current prohibition on new government regulations expires on Wednesday.
In 2004, Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Act amendments that created certain regulations for the commercial human spaceflight industry, but directed the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) not to issue new regulations governing the safety of passengers for 8 years. The law established an "informed consent" regime where commercial human spaceflight providers had to inform potential passengers of the risks, but it was up to the passenger to decide whether or not to take them. The idea was that the government should have a light hand of regulation over the nascent commercial human spaceflight business until enough experience was gained to determine whether more was needed.
The 8 years passed without a single commercial human spaceflight, so the prohibition on new regulations -- called a "moratorium" or a "learning period" -- was extended. At the moment, it will expire on September 30. Whether or not to extend it again is a matter of contention between FAA/AST and its Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).
So far, Congress has shown willingness to extend it; the question is only for how long. A House bill, H.R. 2262, would extend the learning period until 2025. The Senate bill, S. 1297, would extend it to 2020.
Both bills address a range of commercial space issues and while the two sides of Capitol Hill are trying to reach agreement, the bill that passed today, H.R. 3614, would provide a 6-month extension for the learning period (among a number of non-space related provisions). That bill, the Airport and Airway Extension Act, was introduced on Friday and passed the House today under suspension of the rules. No hearings or markups were held on that bill.
Sec. 102(e) of the bill extends the relevant section of the U.S. Code, 51 U.S.C. 50905(c)(3), by striking October 1, 2015 and inserting April 1, 2016. The brief extension allows negotiators on H.R. 2262 and S. 1297 some breathing room to reach agreement.
There does not appear to be a Senate counterpart to the bill, but it is certainly possible for Congress to pass a bill like this in two days if there is no strong opposition.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 28-October 2, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session.
During the Week
This is it! The week when FY2016 begins -- ready or not. The House and Senate have until Wednesday, September 30, at midnight to pass, and for the President to sign, a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open. House Speaker John Boehner's surprising announcement on Friday that he will resign as Speaker and from his House seat on October 30 is widely expected to make it easier to get a CR in place. He can worry less about placating the right wing conservatives in his party who are refusing to vote for a CR unless it defunds Planned Parenthood and use Democratic votes to get the CR through the House. While that is good news in the short term, the CR is only expected to last through December, so the proverbial can is just being kicked down the road into the lap of whoever becomes the next Speaker. But it's best to take one crisis at a time and perhaps the country will be able to get through this one less painfully than expected. But it's never over till the fat lady sings. Predicting what Congress will do is a risky undertaking, as Boehner's announcement proves.
The Senate is expected to pass a clean CR (without any policy riders like defunding Planned Parenthood) early in the week. It is using the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Office of Inspection Accountability Act (H.R. 719) as the legislative vehicle for the CR. A cloture motion is expected on Monday at 5:30 pm ET. (Congress often uses an unrelated bill that is already through most of the legislative process as a vehicle for a CR or omnibus appropriations since it speeds things up.)
Amidst all the appropriations drama, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on astrobiology on Tuesday. It originally was scheduled for June 23, but postponed when the House recessed to allow members to attend the funerals in Charleston, S.C. after the mass shooting there.
As if Washington politics isn't exciting enough, NASA apparently has something intriguing of its own to announce on Monday. It's not saying exactly what, but at 11:30 am ET there will be a press conference where a "Mars mystery" will be solved. Lots of speculation on Twitter and elsewhere as to what it will be, but we won't spoil the surprise.
Speaking of Mars, another BIG EVENT this week will be the theater release of The Martian on October 2. In the unlikely event you haven't heard about the movie, based on the book by Andy Weir, it's about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars. NASA has been going all out to advertise the film and a panel discussion at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday -- So You Want to be a Martian -- includes two of the actors in the film, Mackenzie Davis and Chiwetel Ejiofor. KSC Director Bob Cabana, who is also on the panel, clearly is hoping that Congress does, in fact, pass that CR so KSC will be open for business that day (October 1).
Those and other events we know about as of Saturday afternoon are listed below. Check back throughout the week for updates on the calendar on the right side of our main page.
Sunday-Friday, September 27-October 2
Monday-Tuesday, September 28-29
Tuesday, September 29
Tuesday-Wednesday, September 29-30
Thursday, October 1
Friday, October 2
House Speaker John Boehner told his Republican conference this morning that he will resign his Speakership and his seat in Congress on October 30, 2015.
The House has been girding for battle on the FY2016 appropriations bills pitting those whose primary interest is keeping the government operating against those determined to end government funding of Planned Parenthood. The most conservative wing of the Republican party in the House has sent strong indications that they plan to try to remove Boehner as Speaker this fall because they do not think he fights strongly enough for their causes, such as defunding Planned Parenthood.
Boehner, a Catholic and former altar boy, was visibly moved by the visit of Pope Francis yesterday. He and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), also a Catholic, were the ones who invited the Pope to address a joint session of Congress, the first Pope to accept such an invitation. The Pope's visit fulfilled one of Boehner's lifelong dreams according to multiple accounts.
One of the Pope's messages to Congress was unity: "Each son or daughter of a given country has a mission, a personal and social responsibility. Your own responsibility as members of Congress is to enable this country, by your legislative activity, to grow as a nation. .... Legislative activity is always based on the care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you."
The Hill newspaper quotes a Boehner aide as saying that Boehner feels his primary role in Congress is to protect the institution and "as we saw yesterday with the Holy Father, it is the one thing that unites and inspires us all." The aide added that Boehner felt a prolonged battle over his leadership "would do irreparable damage to the institution" and he therefore will resign "for the good of the Republican conference and the institution." The aide also said that Boehner planned to retire last year, but stayed after his second-in-command, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-VA), lost his seat in a primary race.
Cantor was succeeded as Majority Leader by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA). Speculation as to who will replace Boehner as Speaker in these initial hours focuses on McCarthy. He issued a statement saying "It takes profound humility to step down from a position of power, and John's depth of character is unmatched. ... Now is the time for our conference to focus on healing and unifying to face the challenges ahead and always do what is best for the American people."
From a space policy standpoint, McCarthy represents the district that includes Edwards Air Force Base and the Mojave Air & Space Port. He has been actively involved in commercial space issues and is the lead sponsor of H.R. 2262, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, which passed the House on May 21. It is far too early, of course, to assume that he will become Speaker or that space policy will have greater visibility in the House if he is.
Boehner's announcement may be good news for those who want to avoid a government shutdown next week because he may be more willing to pass a clean Continuing Resolution (CR) using Democratic votes to get the needed 218 votes even though many of his own members will vote against it. He and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have vowed since the beginning of the year that they will not allow another shutdown like the one in 2013, and both have been fighting the most conservative wings of their parties that do not view a government shutdown as a negative. McConnell is going through a process in the Senate right now that many expect will ultimately lead to the Senate passing a clean CR (without any policy riders such as defunding Planned Parenthood).
It is always risky to try and predict what Congress will do, however, as Boehner's surprise announcement this morning proves.
China debuted the Long March 11 rocket last night Eastern Daylight Time (EDT), just days after the first flight of another new rocket, Long March 6. Long March 11 is solid-fueled, while Long March 6 is liquid. Both are designed to launch microsatellites and the launch yesterday placed four of them in orbit, three of which will demonstrate formation flying.
China's official news agency Xinhua announced that the launch of Long March 11, or Chang Zheng-11 (CZ-11), took place from the Jiuquan Space Launch Center near Chengdu at 9:41 am today, September 25, China Standard Time (9:41 pm yesterday EDT).
Xinhua said little about the payloads other than that they were four microsatellites. The NASASpaceflight.com website has an extensive description of three of them that reportedly will demonstrate formation flying to "form a 150-m long solar coronagraph to study the Sun's faint corona closer to the solar rim" than before. Called Tianwang-1A, -1B and -1C, they were designed by a consortium of companies from China, Denmark, Portugal and Sweden. The website reports that the fourth microsatellite is named Pujian-1, but no details of its mission were provided.
The launch comes just five days after the maiden launch of Long March 6, which Xinhua heralded as the first of a new generation of Chinese liquid-fueled rockets using environmentally-friendly propellant. That rocket launches from a different space launch center, Taiyuan, near Bejiing.
China also has the Kuaizhou-1 (KZ-1) rocket, with three solid-fuel stages and a liquid-fueled fourth stage (which is integrated with the satellite), designed to launch small satellites from Jiuquan.
Long March 6, Long March 11 and KZ-1 are all described as rapid-response launch vehicles for small satellites. KZ-1 was designed by the China Aerospace Science & Industry Corporation (CASIC), while Long March 6 and Long March 11 were designed by the China Academy of Launch Vehicle Technology (CALT). There are technical differences among the rocket types that offer advantages or disadvantages depending on the mission, but some see competition between CASIC and CALT as the primary explanation for why there are two solid-fueled rockets in the same class. Jonathan McDowell of Jonathan's Space Report noted in a tweet that CALT has built liquid fueled rockets until now-- Long March 11 is its first solid-fueled rocket.
In a letter to NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan today, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee, questioned whether NOAA truly is committed to the idea of commercial partnerships to obtain weather satellite data to augment and avoid gaps in data from NOAA's own satellite programs. NOAA recently released a draft Commercial Space Policy, but Smith asserts that it simply "provides NOAA cover to continue to avoid commercial options."
NOAA's draft Commercial Space Policy was released on September 1. Public comments are due by October 1. It would set policy for NOAA to interact with the commercial sector for data buys, hosted payloads, rideshares, and launch services, but not for designing, building or operating government-owned spacecraft or data transfer services solely for dissemination purposes.
Smith complains in his letter to Sullivan that the draft policy took 2 years to produce, but is only 13 pages long. It "does not provide sufficient details to give a true indication of NOAA's willingness to actually engage in commercial partnerships" and "does not appear to solve any of the issues that continue to be raised on this matter," he writes.
Among his criticisms are that the draft policy requires data to meet certain quality standards, but NOAA has not made any such standards public, and NOAA's responsibilities as outlined in the draft "may become burdensome, making commercial acquisitions unnecessarily complex." He requests NOAA to provide his committee with documents and communications related to formulation of the draft and to NOAA's public engagement related to it by October 7, 2015.
The House SS&T Committee has held a number of hearings on the potential of using data from commercial sources in NOAA's weather forecasting activities over the past several years. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) has been a leader on this issue in the House. (The National Weather Center is located in Norman, OK.) At a February 2015 hearing he called on NOAA to "look outside the box" at commercial efforts like PlanetIQ, Spire, GeoOptics, Tempus Global Data and HySpecIQ to deliver GPS radio occultation or hyperspectral atmospheric data to augment weather forecasts.
NOAA operates two weather satellite constellations, one in polar orbit and one in geostationary orbit. NOAA has expressed concern for years that gaps may develop between existing satellites in those constellations and their replacements - the new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) and the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite-R (GOES-R) series. Commercial data buy advocates argue that their data could fill in those gaps.
The House passed the Weather Research and Forecast Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) in May that would create a pilot program for commercial space-based weather data and authorized $9 million for it. During markup of the bill, Bridenstine argued that the commercial approach would create resiliency and mitigate against the risks inherent in the "huge, monolithic" satellites NOAA currently relies upon.
Bridenstine tried to get that $9 million appropriated during House consideration of the FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, but withdrew his amendment after CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) promised to work with the Senate to add it in conference on the bill. The Senate Appropriations Committee did not include that $9 million, but does encourage NOAA to explore options for obtaining GPS radio occultation data from commercial sources in the report on its version of the bill.
The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act, S. 1331, in May that shares some of the same goals as H.R. 1561, but focuses more on improving procurement of government satellites. The Senate has not voted on that bill yet.
One concern about NOAA using commercial weather satellite data is whether it could be shared on the same full, open and free basis as government data. One of the "guiding principles" of the draft NOAA policy is that NOAA will continue to adhere to the full, open and free data policy bearing in mind U.S. commitments to the World Meteorological Organization and honoring existing partnerships with government, international and industry organizations.
A panel of experts convened by the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the Alliance for Space Development (ASD) today made the case for accelerating the emergence of commercial space stations and other facilities in low Earth orbit (LEO) to avoid another gap in human spaceflight as International Space Station (ISS) operations wrap up in the next decade. NASA should help by stating what its requirements will be post-ISS, thereby encouraging other potential customers to follow suit and motivating companies to build facilities to meet those needs.
Charles Miller, President of NexGen Space LLC, and Mike Gold, Director of DC Operations and Business Growth for Bigelow Aerospace, insisted NASA needs to do more to make commercial LEO activities a reality. Miller is a former NASA senior advisor for commercial space. Bigelow is building inflatable space modules, one of which will be attached to the ISS late this year or early next as a test. (It is scheduled to be taken to the ISS on the next SpaceX cargo mission, SpX-8. A date for that launch has not been announced as SpaceX recovers from the failure of SpX-7 in June.)
Miller stressed that a "seamless, low-risk transition" from ISS to commercial space stations is critical, noting that current plans to operate ISS extend only to 2024, which is not that far away. He listed four markets (not including NASA) for LEO services -- microgravity research, propellant transfer, transportation node, and on-orbit assembly. Of those, he counted microgravity research as the most speculative. The other three have much clearer markets, he contended: the planned United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vulcan rocket with its ACES upper stage is the harbinger of a new paradigm in launch that will eventually lead to commercial propellant depots in LEO; the use of the ISS for deploying nanosatelites is a precursor of the transportation node concept; and the advantages of assembling modular geostationary (GEO) satellites in LEO and then moving them to GEO, instead of subjecting the assembled satellite to the stresses of launch, will stimulate an on-orbit assembly business.
Bigelow launched two test inflatable modules, Genesis I and Gensis II, a decade ago using converted Russian ICBMs, Gold recounted. Next is the Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) that will be attached to ISS and allow astronauts to enter one of these modules for the first time. NASA launched the first inflatable at the beginning of the Space Age -- the Echo communications relay satellite -- and continued work under the TransHab program, but ultimately abandoned the concept. Millionaire Robert Bigelow, owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, is investing his own money ($500 million according to Gold), to turn the concept into reality, with the goal of using such modules not just in LEO, but perhaps as habitats on the surface of the Moon or Mars.
One question is what federal agency would regulate in-space activities. Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires governments to supervise space activities by their non-government entities, but no U.S. government agency has been assigned that responsibility. Gold called it a "regulatory gap." Steph Earle of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) advocated for his office to be given that role. Stressing that his office currently licenses only launch and reentry, not on-orbit activities, he said they are supportive of the concept because it is consistent with the 2010 National Space Policy.
Miller disagreed that FAA/AST is the appropriate regulatory body, saying that transportation is part of commercial LEO activities, but much more is involved and perhaps the Department of Commerce should have a role, perhaps by expanding NOAA's regulatory responsibilities (it licenses commercial remote sensing satellites).
FAA/AST was created in the early 1980s partially in response to the difficulties encountered by early commercial space launch companies, notably Space Services Inc. with its Conestoga rocket, because it had to get approvals from 16 different agencies to launch one rocket. Carissa Christensen, Managing Partner of The Tauri Group, emphasized that it would not be cost-effective to go back to having multiple agencies in charge of regulating commercial space endeavors. She further cautioned that the real barriers to successful commercialization of LEO, not to mention the Moon and Mars, are not regulatory, but economic: "there is a thin line between pursuing a visionary dream and tilting at windmills."
Gold and Miller see NASA as holding the key. Mr. Bigelow is putting in a "vast" amount of his own money, but NASA needs to "act like a smart customer" and "play some role as a catalyst" to get other governments and customers to sign up, Gold said. He worries that there will be a "human platform gap" if decisions are not made soon where "the only station we will have is China's." Miller was even more adamant: "NASA is actually hurting the industry by not being willing to state how much they're willing to buy" even though its need for LEO facilities "never goes away." He advocated a "COTS-like partnership to stimulate" activities and markets, a reference to NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) public private partnership that led to the SpaceX and Orbital ATK commercial cargo systems that resupply the ISS.
The panel's bottom line was that there are many issues to be solved before LEO commercialization is a reality, from market demand (including NASA's) to regulatory oversight, but the most critical is to avoid a gap between the end of the ISS program and whatever commercial LEO facilities will follow.
NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier has, in fact, been raising similar concerns in testimony to Congress and elsewhere. NASA also held a LEO commercialization workshop in December 2014, but specifics on NASA's needs have not been publicly identified. One factor is when ISS operations will end, something that has not been determined. The Obama Administration is committed to at least 2024, but ISS advocates anticipate it will continue at least until 2028 -- its 30th anniversary.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said today that the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) may need more resources to cope with the recent rise in commercial space launch licenses, but does a poor job of justifying it in budget requests to Congress. It also pointed out that the moratorium on the FAA creating new regulations for the commercial human spaceflight expires at the end of this month. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, who requested the report, said it underscores the need for Congress to reach agreement on pending legislation to extend the moratorium.
The report reviews the growth in the U.S. commercial space launch business, which is regulated and facilitated by AST. U.S. companies conducted 11 orbital commercial launches in 2014; in 2011 there were none. The industry is expected to continue growing, and FAA requested a 16 percent increase in staff in its FY2016 budget request, but GAO said no detailed justification was provided.
FAA/AST is asking for a $1.5 million increase in its budget, from $16.605 million to $18.114 million, to add 13 full time equivalent staff positions for a new total of 92. Congress has not been entirely supportive. The House-passed Transportation-HUD appropriations bill provided only a $250,000 increase, and that was added during floor debate, not by the appropriators. The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended an $820 million increase, $689 million less than the request.
AST not only is handling an increase in applications for launch licenses, but also is involved in several accident investigations: the October 28, 2014 Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares failure; the October 31, 2014 SpaceShipTwo crash; and the June 28, 2015 SpaceX Falcon 9 failure. Although FAA regulations put the companies in charge of such investigations, AST is a key participant, making those investigations an additional drain on resources. The National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB's) review of the SpaceShipTwo crash faulted some of AST's actions in licensing that test, although it was not the probable cause. (Separately, a recent NASA Inspector General report raises questions about NASA's involvement in the Antares investigation.)
GAO looked more broadly at AST's set of responsibilities amid a steep rise in the commercial space launch business in today's report. Its bottom line is that Congress lacks the information it needs to assess what resources are needed. The report's one recommendation is that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to provide that data.
Regarding the September 30, 2015 expiration of the moratorium on new regulations for commercial human spaceflight, GAO said that "most" of the representatives of commercial space launch companies it interviewed were in favor of extending it again (it was already extended in 2012). Also called a "learning period," the provision originally enacted in 2004 prohibits FAA from creating new regulations governing the safety of crew and passengers while the industry gains sufficient experience to inform any such regulations. The FAA/AST's primary responsibility is protecting the uninvolved public (third parties) from a safety standpoint. Whether or not the learning period should be extended has been a source of friction between AST and its Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC). AST head George Nield does not want it extended while COMSTAC does.
The House passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE), H.R. 2262, in May, which would extend the learning period to December 31, 2025. House SS&T Chairman Smith said today that the GAO report underscores the importance of finalizing action on that bill. The Senate-passed version of a related bill, S. 1297, would extend it to 2020.
Smith also said AST should "maximize its current resources," including the use of overtime and "facilitating the development of industry standards to respond to increased workloads," but the committee "will work with the FAA to ensure it has the resources it needs to ensure a healthy and safe domestic commercial space sector." House SS&T is an authorizing committee that sets policy and recommends funding levels, but only the appropriations committees actually provide funding. No reaction from the House or Senate appropriations committees was evident today.
Events of Interest
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