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Will Space Be A Topic at Thursday's Republican Presidential Primary Debate? - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Aug-2015 (Updated: 07-Aug-2015 12:04 PM)

UPDATE, August 7, 2015:   No space policy questions arose at the debate.

ORIGINAL STORY, August 5, 2015:  The 10 Republican presidential candidates who will debate each other in prime time on Thursday were selected by Fox News on Tuesday based on an average of five national polls.  Among them are former Florida governor Jeb Bush who recently said he is "a space guy," and Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marco Rubio (R-FL), both of whom made statements yesterday in support of Senate passage of a commercial space bill.  While space activities rarely rise to the fore in presidential primary debates, it did happen in 2012. Perhaps it will this time, too.

Cruz is the sponsor of S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which passed the Senate yesterday (August 4).  Rubio of one of four cosponsors.

Following Senate passage, Cruz invoked the memory of President Ronald Reagan, saying the bill carried forward "President Reagan's torch" by continuing to support commercial space. The original Commercial Space Launch Act was enacted during Reagan's presidency.  In addition to provisions dealing directly with commercial space launch issues, the bill also extends the U.S. commitment to operating the International Space Station to 2024.   Reagan initiated the space station program in his 1984 State of the Union Address.  Cruz also tied the bill to his home state interests, saying that it demonstrates Texas has a "major stake in space exploration" and Johnson Space Center employees "will continue to play a vital role in the future" of human spaceflight.   Cruz has also made clear his support for space exploration during Senate hearings, arguing that exploration of space, not studying the earth, should be NASA's priority.

One provision of S. 1297 extends through 2020 the "learning period" during which the FAA cannot issue additional commercial human spaceflight regulations.  Sometimes called a "moratorium," it is set to expire on September 30, 2015.  The idea is that the commercial human spaceflight industry needs time to gain experience before decisions are  made on what, if any, more regulation is needed.

It may be that provision Rubio was referring to in his statement that "we need to eliminate unnecessary regulations that cost too much and make it harder for American innovators to create jobs."  He added that the reforms in the bill will "make it easier for our innovators to return Americans to suborbital space" and "help the American space industry continue pushing further into space than ever before."  Like Cruz and other Senators who commented on the bill, he tied it to home state interests calling it "an important win for Florida's space exploration community."

For his part, Bush championed an increase in NASA funding during an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader in Manchester, NH, enthusing that "I'm a space guy."

People were allowed to send in questions to Fox News that they want the candidates to answer.  At least one is about space policy.   Michael Listner, founder and principal of Space Law & Policy Solutions in New Hampshire, tweeted today that he submitted one.

Whether or not it or any other space policy question gets asked is problematical, of course. The two-hour debate has 10 candidates and three co-moderators.  How many questions can be reasonably asked and answered in that time span with so many participants will be interesting to watch.  The debate airs on Fox News Channel and is being conducted in partnership with Facebook.  It is being held in Cleveland, Ohio.

The 10 candidates who made the cut to be in the prime time debate at 9:00 pm EDT are (in order of their standing in the polls yesterday from highest to lowest):

  • Donald Trump (billionaire businessman)
  • Jeb Bush (former Florida governor)
  • Scott Walker (current Wisconsin governor)
  • Mike Huckabee (former Arkansas governor)
  • Ben Carson (commentator and retired neurosurgeon)
  • Ted Cruz (Senator from Texas)
  • Marco Rubio (Senator from Florida)
  • Rand Paul (Senator from Kentucky)
  • Chris Christie (current New Jersey governor)
  • John Kasich (current Ohio governor)

Seven other Republican presidential candidates who ranked lower in the polls will appear in a separate one-hour debate at 5:00 pm EDT.  They are:

  • Rick Perry (former Texas governor)
  • Rick Santorum (former Senator from Pennsylvania)
  • Bobby Jindal (current Louisiana governor)
  • Carly Fiorina (former CEO of Hewlett Packard)
  • Lindsey Graham (Senator from South Carolina)
  • George Pataki (former New York governor)
  • Jim Gilmore (former Virginia governor)

During the 2012 Republican presidential primaries, candidate Newt Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House, laid out bold goals for the space program, and he and Mitt Romney responded to questions about the space program in one of the televised debates.

Senate Passes Commercial Space Bill, Extends ISS to 2024

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Aug-2015 (Updated: 30-Sep-2015 08:52 AM)

The Senate passed the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297, today (August 4) by unanimous consent.  The broadly cast bill not only deals with several issues directly related to commercial space launch, but also extends operation of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2024.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, was approved by the committee on May 20 and formally reported from committee on July 22.  Cosponsors include Republican Senators Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Democrats Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI).  

Cruz said the bill carries forward "President Reagan's torch" by making a commitment to continued support of the commercial space sector.   The original Commercial Space Launch Act was enacted in 1984 during Reagan's presidency.   It also extends the U.S. commitment to ISS operations through 2024.   President Reagan initiated the space station program in his 1984 State of the Union Address.  Cruz also tied the legislation to Texas interests, noting that it "recognizes that Texas has a major stake in space exploration" and the ISS commitment signifies that Johnson Space Center employees "will continue to play a vital role in the future" of human spaceflight.

Nelson, the top Democrat on the full committee, said the bill will "help clear the way for the commercial space companies to grow and thrive on Florida's Space Coast and across the nation" and help "with our push to explore Mars."

In addition to the extension of ISS to 2024, the bill --

  • extends to 2020 the "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight whereby the FAA cannot promulgate new regulations except under certain circumstances (sometimes called a "moratorium," it currently expires on September 30, 2015);
  • extends FAA's authority to indemnify commercial space launch companies from third party liability claims for certain amounts of money until 2020 (current authority expires on December 31, 2016);
  • establishes a new "Government Astronaut" category of passenger on commercial spaceflights separate from crew and spaceflight participants;
  • asks the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in consultation with NASA and other government agencies, to assess and recommend approaches for the oversight of commercial space activities; and
  • asks for a report on how to streamline the process for obtaining licenses and permits for innovative launch vehicles, such as hybrids that use both aircraft and rockets.

The House passed a related bill, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262, on May 21.  There are many differences between the House and Senate bills, and the House bill passed against strong Democratic objections, but there also are similarities providing a basis for conference discussions.

President Obama decided last year that the United States would continue operations of ISS to 2024, but current law says only that it will operate "at least through 2020."  That does not preclude operations beyond 2020, but some argue that the later date should also be stated in law.   Canada and Russia have agreed with the proposal to continue operations through 2024; Japan and Europe have not done so yet.

Muted Response from Critics as State Department Prepares for Space Talks with China

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Aug-2015 (Updated: 03-Aug-2015 01:09 AM)

Five weeks ago, the State Department announced agreement on a U.S.-China Civil Space Dialogue that will begin in October, a short three months from now.  With all the hyperbole that usually surrounds discussions of U.S.-China space cooperation, a firestorm of outrage from critics and exuberance from advocates might have been expected, but the reaction has been almost nonexistent.

The muted response from critics is all the more surprising since the State Department’s announcement came in the midst of news that China hacked into the Office of Personnel Management’s computer system, stealing data on more than 22 million current and former government employees and their relatives.

Indeed the State Department issued a press release listing a total of 127 “outcomes” – of which the civil space dialogue is only one – from bilateral talks between the two countries held on June 22-24.  Underscoring the complexities of diplomacy, the United States is castigating China on the cybersecurity front while agreeing to engage on many other fronts.

The State Department is preparing for the first civil space dialogue meeting at the end of October in China.   Kia Henry, a State Department spokesperson, said that all discussions will comply with U.S. laws and regulations.  The State Department will chair the discussions with “support from NASA, the FAA, NOAA, the U.S. Geological Survey and DoD.”  Henry said they will consider environmental and scientific satellite data exchanges and spaceflight safety issues such as satellite collision avoidance.

NASA is prohibited by law from engaging in bilateral activities with China unless authorized by Congress or 30 days advance certification is provided to Congress that such engagement poses “no risk of resulting in the transfer of technology, data, or other information with national security or economic security implications” and does not involve known violators of human rights.

Kia said that it is NASA’s responsibility to submit the required certification.

Former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), a strong critic of China for many reasons, including human rights, was largely responsible for creating that prohibition several years ago and continuing it in subsequent appropriations act.  He chaired the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and is now retired, but his successor, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) holds similar views and continued the prohibition in the FY2016 CJS bill that passed the House in June.

SpacePolicyOnline’s attempts over the past two weeks to obtain a reaction to the State Department's announcement from Culberson, however, were unsuccessful.

Outside of Congress, the most outspoken critics of potential U.S.-China space cooperation do not appear to have publicly commented either (’s repeated attempts to contact one of them also yielded no results.)  Eric Sterner, a Fellow at the Marshall Institute, however, offered his views in a July 27 op-ed published by Space News.  While agreeing that a dialogue could be valuable in areas such as collision avoidance, debris mitigation and science, he sees “little compelling reason for those discussions to evolve into civil space cooperation.”  He disagreed with those who argue that cooperating in space leads to better geopolitical relationships on Earth, noting that Russia’s participation in the International Space Station did not dissuade its leaders from invading Ukraine.

A leading advocate of cooperation praised the decision.  Joan Johnson-Freese, a professor at the Naval War College who has written books about the Chinese space program, told that the congressional ban “largely serves domestic political goals” and the State Department’s announcement seems to be a ‘recognition that in geopolitics, dialogue is always better than no dialogue.”  She added that working with China on a space science project, for example, would allow the United States “to learn more about their decision making processes” and standard operating procedures, a “not inconsequential benefit.”

A key point will come in September when the House returns from its August recess and NASA submits the 30-day advance certification.  Congress will be busy on other issues, like trying to pass a Continuing Resolution to keep the government operating, and perhaps the topics planned for this first civil space dialogue are sufficiently non-controversial that the certification will be accepted perfunctorily.   Still, for all the rancor that the issue has engendered in the past, and the timing of the announcement amid accusations of Chinese cyberattacks on U.S. government databases, the subdued reaction is remarkable.

What's Happening In Space Policy August 3-31, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Aug-2015 (Updated: 02-Aug-2015 01:01 PM)

It's summer vacation time so our list of upcoming space policy related events is rather sparse.  Therefore we are listing everything we know about for the entire month of August rather than just one week.  The Senate will be in session this week before it heads out on its summer recess; the House left town last week.  Both will return on September 8. 

During the Month

The Senate still has one more week to go before it recesses for its summer break.  It plans to focus on efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, which is not a space policy issue per se, but there is worry that it could derail the Continuing Resolution (CR) that Congress will need to pass before October 1 to  keep the government operating.  There is no expectation that any of the 12 regular appropriations bills will clear Congress by then, so either a CR must be enacted or there will be a government shutdown.  You can check your favorite news sources to get up to date on the Planned Parenthood controversy, but the bottom line for the space program is that Republicans have seized on the issue to prevent any government funds from going to the non-profit organization.  Democrats have said they will try to block any such effort and the White House said the President would veto any legislation to defund it.  If the CR includes such language, and the President vetoes it ... well, that means no funding for DOD, NASA, or NOAA either.  It's a high stakes game and impossible to guess the outcome.

Apart from that, there is an outside chance the Senate could pass S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.  It was reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on July 22. The bill is thought to be non-controversial, but its lead sponsor is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who recently took to the floor of the Senate in front of the C-SPAN cameras to castigate the Senate Majority Leader, calling him a liar.  The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), controls what bills are brought up so he might not be inclined to bring up one sponsored by Cruz, but then again, it is always difficult to predict what will happen in Congress. (Even fellow Republicans felt Cruz went too far, especially since there's a Senate rule that one Senator will not impugn the integrity of another Senator on the Senate floor.  They showed their displeasure this week, denying Cruz a routine request for a "sufficient second" for a roll call vote on a procedural matter.  Some also disputed Cruz's account of what McConnell had said. These sorts of intra-party disputes are usually kept private.)

For those who are curious, by the way, the House and Senate may meet in "pro forma" sessions during August (or anytime), but no legislative activity takes place at those times.  The idea is to prevent the President from making "recess appointments," which he is allowed to do when Congress is in recess for more than three days.  So the House and Senate schedule pro forma sessions where only one Member or Senator must walk into the chamber and gavel it into and out of session so it is not legally in recess for an extended period.

Not on our list of events because space policy is unlikely to arise as an issue, but perhaps of interest anyway, is Thursday's Fox News Republican presidential debate.  If you've lost count, there are 17 Republicans running for President.  Those that rank in the top 10 based on an average of 5 national polls on Tuesday (Fox has not said which national polls it will use) will be on stage together at 9:00 pm ET.  The others will have a separate opportunity earlier in the evening (5:00 pm ET). Check your local TV listings for what channel it will be on in your area.

The rest of month is relatively quiet.  The events we know about as of Sunday (August 2) morning are listed below.

Monday-Tuesday, August 3-4

Wednesday-Thursday, August 5-6

Thursday, August 6

Sunday, August 16

Monday-Wednesday, August 24-26

Tuesday, August 25

Friday, August 28

Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2

  • Space 2015 (AIAA), Pasadena Convention Center, Pasadena, CA

Export-Import Bank Will Have to Wait - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jul-2015 (Updated: 30-Jul-2015 03:56 PM)

UPDATE, July 30, 3:50 pm EDT:  This afternoon the Senate passed the House's short-term (three-month) extension of the highway bill, that has no Export-Import Bank reauthorization, sending it to the President for signature.  The Senate also passed its own long-term highway bill, that includes the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization adopted by amendment earlier this week; it will be waiting for House action when the House returns in September.

ORIGINAL POST, July 30, 8:19 am EDT:  The House began its summer recess last night without passing legislation to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, leaving it in limbo at least until September.  Instead it passed a short-term extension to the highway bill without an Ex-Im Bank provision and sent it to the Senate before turning out the lights.  The House will meet in pro forma sessions, but no legislative business is scheduled until September 8.

The Bank's charter, originally enacted in 1934, must be periodically renewed.  It expired on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed.  The issue splits the Republican and Democratic parties with some members of each insisting that the bank is essential to U.S. exports and therefore to U.S. jobs, while others assert it is corporate welfare for a few big companies.  Boeing is often mentioned in the latter regard.  Advocates claim that small and medium size businesses also benefit not only because of their own projects, but because many are suppliers to the big companies.

The Bank helps provide financing for U.S. exports, including communications satellites, for example.  The Aerospace Industries Associate and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.  

Reauthorization of the Bank is the source of bitter contention in the Senate, but earlier this week that chamber did agree to a multi-year extension of the bank as an amendment to a must-pass highway bill.  There is no substantive connection between the highway bill and the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization, but attaching one to the other was part of a strategy to get both passed before the summer recess began.  Senate supporters of the Ex-Im Bank hoped that enough House members would be willing to accept reauthorization of the Bank in order to keep money flowing from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation projects.  The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires tomorrow (July 31).

The House Republican leadership rejected that strategy, however, and instead passed a separate short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund authorization (until October 29) without any reference to the Ex-Im Bank.  That bill is now pending before the Senate, which is likely to pass it since they do not want highway funding to end and the House has gone home for five weeks so nothing else can pass both chambers until September.

During an appearance at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C.. yesterday,  Boeing chairman, W. James McNerney, Jr said that the Boeing is "actively" considering moving some of its operations overseas so it can take advantage of other countries' equivalents of the Ex-Im Bank.  Explaining that the whole point of the Bank is to level the playing field with foreign competitors, McNerney said If there will be no U.S. Ex-Im Bank, "we are actively considering now moving key pieces of our company to other countries and we never would have considered it before this craziness on Ex-Im."   

He called it "the triumph of ideology over any description of private business."   Boeing is the biggest beneficiary by dollars, he agreed, but not by transactions:  "There are more deals for small and medium size companies than big companies," adding that "70 percent of the value added of our airplanes are made up by small companies ... who would never have a chance to export without us."  The congressional situation is a "sign of dysfunctionality" when two-thirds of the House and of the Senate support reauthorization, but legislation cannot pass because of the "extremes" of the two parties.

FAA Will Respond to NTSB's SpaceShipTwo Report Within 90 Days

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jul-2015 (Updated: 30-Jul-2015 07:13 AM)

Eight of the 10 recommendations adopted by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) yesterday about the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash were directed at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).  An FAA spokesman said today the FAA will respond within the next three months.  The other two were for the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and its President, Eric Stallmer, said CSF would carry them out promptly.

FAA spokesman Hank Price told that the FAA “takes all NTSB recommendations seriously and we will review and respond to them within 90 days as required.”

The NTSB determined that the probable cause of the fatal SS2 accident on October 31, 2014 was that the spaceplane’s builder, Scaled Composites, did not take into account the possibility that a single human error could cause a catastrophic accident and mitigate against it.  That failure "set the stage" for co-pilot Michael Alsbury to unlock a feathering system meant to slow the craft during descent at the wrong time.  The spaceplane was torn apart by aerodynamic forces.  Alsbury died.  Pilot Peter Siebold was injured, but survived.

Scaled is owned by Northrop Grumman.  Scaled President Kevin Mickey said in a statement after the NTSB ruling that safety “has always been a critical component” of its culture, its pilots are “experienced and well trained,” and “we have already made changes in the wake of the accident to further enhance safety.”

Alsbury and Siebold both worked for Scaled and Scaled designed, built and operated the SS2 spaceplane that was destroyed in the accident.  It was under contract to Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic (VG), which plans to build as many as five of them to take people on suborbital trips to space.  VG is itself now building the second spaceplane.  In a “party submission” to the NTSB, VG listed remedial steps it has taken.  They include adding an automatic mechanical inhibit to prevent a pilot from incorrectly unlocking or locking the feathering system during safety-critical phases of flight.  VG has total responsibility for the second spaceplane, but Mickey said Scaled and VG continue to have a relationship and an agreement for parts and services.

As for AST, the NTSB questioned several aspects of its regulatory actions in granting an experimental license to Scaled and overseeing compliance.  By law, AST has a dual role in regulating and facilitating commercial space launch services and reentries.  Its regulatory authority is to protect the public, property and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States.

When Congress created AST in the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act, the intent was for a light regulatory hand that would not stifle a nascent industry by creating unnecessary, burdensome regulations.   The Act has been amended and updated several times over the intervening decades.  That objective has remained the same.

In this case, however, the NTSB found AST’s evaluation of Scaled’s application for an experimental permit was “deficient.” The NTSB focused on waivers AST granted in 2013 and 2014, that were not requested by Scaled, after it determined that the hazard analysis Scaled submitted did not meet the software and human error requirements of AST’s regulations.  NTSB said AST issued the waivers after concluding public health and safety would not be jeopardized and that Scaled had necessary mitigations in place, but did so “without understanding whether the mitigations would adequately protect against a single human error with catastrophic consequences [or] ... were sufficient  to ensure public safety.”   In addition, “Scaled did not request the waiver, participate in the waiver evaluation process, or have an opportunity to comment on the waiver before it was issued (except to identify proprietary information that should not be disclosed).”

NTSB also reported that some of AST’s technical staff complained that “their questions that did not directly relate to public safety were filtered by FAA/AST management to reduce the burden on Scaled.”  AST’s responsibility is public safety, but the NTSB found that the “dividing line” between questions related to public safety and those to meet mission objectives is “not always apparent.”

Among the eight NTSB recommendations to the FAA is for AST to develop clearer policies, practices and procedures that allow direct communications between its staff and applicants; clearer guidance on evaluating permits, waivers and licenses; and better define the line between information needed to ensure public safety and that needed for mission success.

The NTSB also made two recommendations to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry association working to make commercial human spaceflight a reality.  Those recommendations are to help industry ensure better emergency response procedures and to work with the FAA to develop and issue human factors guidance that commercial space operators can use throughout design and operation of a crewed vehicle.  In a statement, CSF President Eric Stallmer pledged support to carry out those recommendations promptly.

AST is a relatively small office within the FAA, and while there is no hint in the NTSB report that budget or staffing shortages were a factor, the FAA has been trying to increase AST’s level of resources.  The FY2016 budget request for AST is $18.114 million, a $1.5 million increase over its FY2015 level.  Congress has not been enthusiastic about granting all of that increase, however.

AST is funded as part of the Transportation-HUD appropriations bill.  The House approved only a $250,000 increase and the Senate Appropriations Committee recommended an $820,000 increase.

Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace chairs the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) that provides independent advice to AST.  Gold said in an interview that perhaps one silver lining is that the SS2 accident and investigation may stimulate a discussion about the appropriate level of resources that AST requires.

In addition to its regular duties, AST has been involved in investigations of three accidents in the past 8 months:  Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares failure on October 28, 2014 (Orb-3);  the SS2 accident three days later; and the SpaceX Falcon 9 failure (CRS-7) on June 28, 2015.  All were licensed by AST.  While AST does not take the lead in the investigations, its staff participates.  As Gold said, launching into space is hard and accidents are going to happen – “AST needs more resources to deal with these issues.”

CSF’s Stallmer also vowed to continue working with Congress to ensure that AST has the resources it needs “to fully address the safety findings and recommendations in the [NTSB] report.”

Rep. Chaka Fattah Indicted, Steps Down as House CJS Subcommittee Ranking Member

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jul-2015 (Updated: 29-Jul-2015 07:15 PM)

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA, stepped down from that position today after being indicted by the Justice Department for misuse of funds.  Fattah denied the charges.

In a statement, Fattah criticized an "eight year effort by some at the Department of Justice to link my public service career to some form of wrongdoing.  With today's charges, this misguided campaign has now moved from speculation to specific allegations....I have never participated in any illegal activity or misappropriation of taxpayer dollars as an elected official."

Rep. Chaka Fattah.   Photo Credit:  Fattah website.

The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee funds not only NASA and NOAA, but the Department of Justice.

Fattah said he was stepping aside as ranking member of the subcommittee in accordance with House rules and precedent, but will "proudly" continue to serve his constituents.

The Justice Department said he and four associates were charged in a 29-count indictment "involving bribery, concealment of unlawful campaign contributions and theft of charitable and federal funds to advance their own personal interests."  

Fattah has been a reliable space program supporter during his tenure as ranking member of the CJS subcommittee.  The House already has passed its version of the FY2016 CJS appropriations bill, but Fattah ordinarily would have been a key member of conference negotiations with the Senate on a final version of the bill. 

Multiple media outlets report that he will be replaced by the next highest ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), whose district is near NASA's Ames Research Center.   Honda himself is currently under scrutiny by the House Ethics Committee for an alleged violation of ethics rules regarding coordination between his official staff and his campaign staff.

NTSB: Scaled's Failure To Protect Against Human Error Led to Loss of SpaceShipTwo

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Jul-2015 (Updated: 28-Jul-2015 03:06 PM)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) voted today to adopt its final report on the October 31, 2014 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident that killed one of the spaceplane's two pilots.  The Board agreed to 17 findings and 10 recommendations, along with a statement of probable cause that focused on the failure of Scaled Composites to "consider and protect against" the possibility that a single human error could doom the vehicle and its crew.

SS2 broke apart during a flight test over the Mojave Desert killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury.  The pilot, Peter Siebold, survived after being thrown clear of the spaceplane unconscious.  He regained consciousness during the fall to Earth and was able to detach himself from his seat and his parachute opened automatically. 

It was immediately evident from telemetry and cockpit video that Alsbury had prematurely moved one of two levers that activate a feathering system intended to slow the spaceplane during descent, creating aerodynamic instability that tore the plane apart.  Why he did so and why the feathering system deployed even though the second lever was not activated were among the subjects of the investigation.

The findings and recommendations span a wide range of concerns about government and private sector actions, many of which were leveled at the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), but the statement of probable cause is aimed at Scaled, which built SS2 and was in charge of the test flight.

The NTSB staff's version said the probable cause was that Alsbury prematurely unlocked the feathering system as the result of time pressure and vibration and loads he had not experienced recently.  It added as a contributing factor Scaled's failure to consider the possibility that a single human error could cause the feathering system to deploy at the wrong time and to adequately warn pilots of that risk.

NTSB chairman Christopher Hart proposed a revised version that swapped those sentences, placing Scaled's failure first and identifying Alsbury's actions as a consequent result.   During a brief recess, the staff and Board members wrote a third version that was thereupon adopted:

The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was Scaled Composites' failure to consider and protect against the possibility that a single human error could result in a catastrophic hazard to the SpaceShipTwo vehicle.  This failure set the stage for the copilot’s premature unlocking of the feather system as a result of time pressure and vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which led to uncommanded feather extension and the subsequent aerodynamic overload and in-flight break up of the vehicle.

Hart was acting NTSB chairman at the time of the accident and was on-site at Mojave Air and Space Port during the initial stages of the investigation and provided the press briefings.

One focus of the investigation was the training the pilots received including human factors and the information formally conveyed to them by Scaled about the dangers of premature deployment of the feathering system.  The NTSB found that the copilot (Alsbury) was experiencing high workload as a result of recalling tasks from memory while performing under time pressure and with vibration and loads that he had not recently experienced, which increased the possibility for errors.  NTSB found that Scaled "did not ensure that pilots correctly understood the risks of unlocking the feather early" and missed opportunities to mitigate against the consequences of human error in its design. 

The NTSB also found that AST's evaluations of Scaled were "deficient" because they did not recognize that Scaled had not identified the potential human-error hazards.  The NTSB also found that a lack of direct communications between the AST and Scaled  technical staffs, pressure to approve experimental applications within 120 days, and other factors interfered with AST's evaluation process.  Questions also arose about why AST granted a waiver to Scaled in July 2013, which the company did not request, regarding required hazard analysis that did not meet requirements for human and software errors.

The NTSB has posted a synopsis of its findings and recommendations.

Senate Adopts Ex-Im Bank Extension, But Fate Still Uncertain - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jul-2015 (Updated: 28-Jul-2015 08:16 AM)

UPDATE, July 28, 2015, 8:10 am EDT:  The Aerospace Industries Association issued a press release praising the Senate action and urging the House to follow suit.

ORIGINAL POST, July 27, 2015, 11:28 pm EDT:  The Senate tonight adopted an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank as part of a Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill.  House Republican leaders stated earlier today, however, that they will not bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.

The amendment, offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on behalf of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), has been the source of bitter contention with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other conservatives who consider the bank to be "corporate welfare." The bank assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products, and advocates insist that without it American exports will suffer and jobs will be lost.  The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.

The bank's authority to operate ended on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed.  The bank can continue current operations, but cannot take on new projects until and unless it is reauthorized.

The Kirk amendment would extend its authorization for four years.  Yesterday the Senate voted 67-26 to allow the amendment to be offered.   Tonight the vote was 64-29 to adopt it. The Senate has yet to vote on the underlying bill.  Even assuming that it passes, its fate is far from certain.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed today that the House will not take up the Senate bill.  The House and Senate disagree not only on the Ex-Im Bank issue, but on the underlying highway bill that allows disbursement of funds from the Highway Trust Fund for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects.  The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires on Friday, July 31.  The House is scheduled to begin its August recess on Friday, so some type of agreement will have to be made - perhaps a short term extension.  The House already passed a 5 month extension of the highway bill -- without an Ex-Im Bank provision -- and McCarthy wants the Senate to pass that bill, not the version now before the Senate.

What happens next is anyone's guess.


Senate Agrees to Consider Amendment to Reauthorize Ex-Im Bank

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2015 (Updated: 26-Jul-2015 07:06 PM)

The Senate took a small, but important, step towards potentially reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank during a rare Sunday session today.  The action does not reauthorize the bank, but sets up a vote on an amendment to do just that later in the week, perhaps as early as tomorrow (Monday).

The Export-Import Bank, created in 1934, assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products such as communications satellites.  The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among those trying to convince Congress to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank.   Its authority to operate expired on June 30 when previous efforts at reauthorization failed.  The bank may continue existing operations for now, but cannot take on new projects.

The issue is divisive within both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Advocates argue that without the bank, exports of American goods will suffer and jobs will be lost.   Opponents insist that it is corporate welfare.  Boeing and General Electric are frequent targets of those critics because they reportedly received two-thirds of the bank's loan commitments between 2007 and 2013, but advocates, including President Obama, counter that smaller companies also benefit, including those that are suppliers to the big companies.

To expedite action, the Senate voted today to allow Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to offer an amendment to an unrelated highway bill later this week.  The highway bill is "must pass" legislation because without it funds from the Highway Trust Fund cannot be disbursed to pay for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. That bill also is controversial.  It is far from certain that even if the Senate does pass the highway bill, with the Ex-Im bank reauthorization included, that the House will agree with either of those actions.  The House is scheduled to begin its month-long August recess on Friday, with last votes expected no later than 3:00 pm ET on Thursday.

That gives the Senate only a few days to pass its bill and try to reach a compromise with the House in order to send legislation to the President' before the Highway Trust Fund authorization expires on July 31.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a strident opponent of the bank and on Friday publicly accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of lying to him and other Senate Republicans about the issue in a blistering statement on the Senate floor (which is available on YouTube).  Such intra-party disputes are not typically aired in front of the C-SPAN cameras.

The procedural vote today to allow Kirk to offer the amendment was 67-26 (60 votes were needed).  Cruz and 25 other Republicans voted against it.  

That does not signal what the fate of the amendment itself will be when it is finally debated, however.   Some of those who voted to allow the amendment to be offered may nonetheless oppose the amendment itself.   At the moment, the Kirk amendment is on the schedule for tomorrow (Monday, July 27), along with several other amendments.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has a useful report explaining the Ex-Im Bank controversy.

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