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Mexican Telecom Authorities Undeterred Despite MexSat-1 Loss

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 16-May-2015 (Updated: 17-May-2015 09:29 PM)

In a press conference following the failed launch attempt of Mexico’s MexSat-1 on Saturday, leaders of Mexico’s Secretariat of Communications and Transportation (SCT) celebrated the government’s foresight in acquiring comprehensive launch insurance, allowing the government to recover 100 percent of its investment in the development and launch of the satellite.

Boeing-built MexSat-1 (Centenario) was destroyed when a Russian Proton-M rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on May 16, 2015 failed at 497 seconds after launch. International Launch Services (ILS) is the provider for Proton-M launch services.

The second of a planned constellation of three satellites for fixed and mobile communications called the MexSat system, Centenario was designed to meet national security and civil communication needs, including emergency services, tele-education, and tele-medicine. The first satellite in the constellation, MexSat-3 (Bicentenario), was successfully launched in December 2012.  According to an SCT press release, the third satellite, Morelos 3, is slated for an October 22, 2015, launch from Cape Canaveral through a service provided by Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services.

During the press conference Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, Secretary of Communications and Transportation, emphasized that the key benefit of having these satellites is not being in the space age, but having the satellite services. For the country to expand in this high-technology area, Mexico will need to learn to live with its inherent risks, he added. SCT’s foresight in fully covering the satellite through private insurance means there is “no loss” for the government of the republic. Ruiz Esparza added that with the upcoming launch of the Morelos 3 satellite, the services that Centenario would have provided are “practically guaranteed.”

Mexico invested an estimated $400 million in Centenario, $90 million of which covered the launch service. Ruiz Esparza was asked to name the amount spent in insurance coverage, a figure he said he did not have on hand and would hesitate to share given the ongoing investigation. In response to a question about the selection of ILS as a launch provider despite the recent issues with the Proton rockets, Ruiz Esparza explained that the service was contracted in February 2012 and that rescinding on that contract would have led to a significant penalty of around $60 million.

A video of the press conference (in Spanish) is available on YouTube.

Editor’s note: English translations provided by Laura Delgado.

Two More Failures in One Day Bedevil Russian Space Program-UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-May-2015 (Updated: 16-May-2015 01:51 PM)

Russia's space program suffered two more failures in the past day.  First, the engines of a Progress cargo spacecraft attached to the International Space Station (ISS) did not fire when commanded to raise the orbit of the ISS.  Then, the launch of a Proton rocket carrying a Mexican communications satellite failed.  These are on top of the failure of a different Progress cargo ship that made an uncontrolled reentry over the Pacific Ocean last week.

Russia launches four or five Progress cargo spacecraft to the ISS each year.  Progress M-26M is currently attached to the ISS.  These spacecraft deliver food, fuel and other supplies and also are used to periodically raise the space station's orbit by firing their engines.  It is a routine reboost operation that dozens of Progress spacecraft have executed for space stations beginning with the Soviet Union's Salyut 6 in the late 1970s and progressing through the Salyut 7, Mir and now ISS programs.  

This time, however, the Progress M-26M engines did not fire upon command.  The engines were supposed to ignite at 4:14 am Moscow Time May 16 (9:14 pm May 15 EDT) and fire for about 15 minutes to raise the ISS orbit by 2.8 kilometers to an altitude of 401.8 kilometers.  The most recent rebsoost was on May 6 and another is planned for June 7.   Russia's official news agency TASS said later in the day that experts at Russia's Mission Control Center had identified the problem and another attempt will be made on May 18.  It quoted an unnamed source as saying "I would rather not name the reason" for the failure.

This incident follows the failure of Progress M-27M to reach the ISS.  Russia is still investigating that failure as well.  The problem occurred when Progress M-27M separated from the third stage of its Soyuz 2.1a rocket during launch on April 28, but Russian specialists still do not know why.  The spacecraft made an uncontrolled reentry on May 7 EDT.  Changes were made to the schedule for crew and cargo launches to the ISS while they try to determine the cause.

Now there is a third anomaly to solve.  A Russian Proton-M rocket with a Briz-M upper stage launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 05:47 GMT (1:47 am EDT) this morning to send Mexico's MexSat-1 (or Centenario) to geostationary orbit.  The Proton's third stage failed at 497 seconds according to Roscosmos, however.  The third stage, the Briz-M upper stage, and the MexSat-1 satellite all fell to Earth over the Baikal region of Russia.  Most of the debris is presumed to have burned up during the descent from 161 kilometers altitude.  Russian authorities are searching the area, but no fragments have been located.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev immediately directed that a State Commission be established to investigate the accident "and submit proposals on personal and financial responsibility."

TASS said preliminary indications are that the "steering engines of the third stage" failed.   A Proton failure exactly one year ago doomed Russia's Ekspress-AM4R communications satellite because of a bad bearing in the turbo pump of a third stage engine.

Proton launches are marketed worldwide by International Launch Services (ILS) based in Reston, VA. Roscosmos fairly quickly posted on its website that "an emergency situation occurred."  Several hours later ILS acknowledged the failure and said that it will create its own Failure Review Oversight Board that will work in parallel with Russia's State Commission.  Roscosmos said the "satellite and its launch" are insured by the customer, while third party liability is insured by the Russian side.

Russia's launch vehicles once were considered among the most reliable in the world, but repeated failures since December 2010 have tarnished their reputation. The Russian government has fired people at Roscosmos and in industry and repeatedly reorganized the aerospace sector, most recently combining the government and industry sectors under a single individual, but the failures continue.

Editor's Note:  This story, originally posted at 9:41 am ET, May 16, 2015, was updated throughout at 1:15 pm with additional information. 

Senate Bill Sets Stiff Requirements for Future NOAA Satellites - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015 (Updated: 20-May-2015 05:34 PM)

UPDATE, May 20, 2015:   The Senate Commerce Committee approved the bill, as amended, today.  The amendments are posted on the committee's website.  

ORIGINAL STORY, May 14, 2015:  A bill introduced today in the Senate by the chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee would set stiff requirements for future NOAA satellites as part of an effort to improve "seasonal" weather forecasts.  The bill, S. 1331, is scheduled for markup by the committee next week.

Committee chairman John Thune (R-SD) teamed with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) to introduce the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act.  "Seasonal" is defined in the bill as longer than two weeks, but shorter than two years.  The main goal is to improve forecasts for unusually cold winters or hot summers, or drought, but the bill also includes provisions aimed at reforming NOAA's procurement of satellites.

The intent of some of the satellite-related provisions is not clear and questions posed to the committee by were not answered as of the time of this writing. The following summary therefore relies simply on the language in the bill, which would require NOAA to --

  • improve procurement of polar and geostationary satellites and assess the operational viability of alternate observation platforms such as microsatellite constellations and ocean observing platforms;
  • use competitive procurement processes to acquire polar and geostationary satellites "in a program phase via a single procurement action" ("program phase" is defined as acquisition of a series of satellites sharing a common architecture, which sounds like a block buy);
  • assure that satellites are procured or acquired in a manner that "secures the best value" that takes into consideration integration with current ground systems, integration of spacecraft and instruments, capacity to respond to changes in requirements and credibility of risk management, and continuity and consistency of capability;
  • complete and operationalize the radio occultation "program of record in effect on the day before enactment of this Act" by deploying constellations of microsatellites in equatorial and polar orbits, integrating the resulting data into all national operational weather forecast models, and ensuring the resulting data are free and open to all;
  • develop all specifications for NOAA satellites based on "operational needs"; and
  • contract with the National Academy of Sciences by September 2018 -- after its next Decadal Survey for Earth Science and Applications from Space is completed -- for a 2-year study that includes recommendations on how to make NOAA's satellite portfolio more robust and cost-effective (the bill lists a number of specific topics to be addressed).

In addition, NOAA is prohibited from procuring any future "program phase" of the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) if the aggregate cost exceeds the aggregate cost "that was incurred ... in procuring the Joint Polar Satellite System 1 and 2" as adjusted for inflation.  NOAA usually expresses the cost of the JPSS program, which includes the first two satellites, as $11.3 billion.  That cost includes about $4 billion from NOAA's share of the since-cancelled DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  Whether the bill's sponsors intend to use $11.3 billion, as adjusted for inflation, as the ceiling for the cost of additional JPSS "program phases" or if they mean to exclude the NPOESS costs is one of the questions that remains to be answered.

The committee plans to markup this bill on May 20, along with several others, including one on Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness.

The House is scheduled to debate its Weather Forecasting Improvement Act, H.R. 1561, next week.  H.R. 1561 and S. 1331 seem to have similar intents, especially changing how NOAA procures satellites, but take different approaches.

SASC Completes Markup: Digs in on Replacing RD-180, Not Convinced About DMSP-20

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015 (Updated: 14-May-2015 08:45 PM)

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) completed markup of its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today.   Most of the subcommittee markups, including that of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, and full committee markup were closed, so the release of a committee fact sheet and a press conference by chairman John McCain (R-AZ) today provide the first public view of what it contains.  Space programs, especially launch vehicles, warranted considerable attention.

McCain and others on the committee, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), have been leaders in Congress to move the Air Force away from using Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.  RD-180s power the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket.  McCain also has been a crucial supporter of SpaceX's determination to compete against ULA for launching national security satellites.  SASC led efforts in last year's NDAA to set a deadline of 2019 for using RD-180s, which the Air Force is seeking to modify so it has more time to build a new American engine, integrate it into a launch vehicle, test and certify it for launching national security satellites.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) went along with the Air Force request in its version of the FY2016 NDAA, which is being debated by the House right now.  SASC did not follow suit.   Instead, it "revalidates" Section 1608 of last year's NDAA, which sets the deadline, although waivers are allowed under certain circumstances.  The SASC bill "limits the use of Russian rocket engines, allowing for as few as zero but as many as nine," according to the press release.  The bill has other provisions aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian engines as soon as possible.

McCain said at the press conference, as he has in other venues, that he does not want American dollars going to "cronies" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Today he said Putin is "dismembering a country as we speak," referring to Ukraine.  (His comments are at the very end of the press conference).  He also called the issue of the rocket engines and ULA a "classic example of the military-industrial complex" and said that SpaceX has said it can have a replacement for RD-180s by 2017, a probable reference to SpaceX's plans for its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to make its first flight this year, but it would take some time for it to be certified to launch national security satellites (which are very expensive and critically necessary so launch failures are not easily tolerated).

SASC also expressed caution about DOD's plans to launch the last of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites. The Air Force decided last year that it did not need DMSP-20, but changed its mind this year and now wants to launch it.  At an April 29 hearing, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. John Hyten said several factors led to their revised decision even though it will cost "millions of dollars": the Europeans have decided not to replace a geostationary weather satellite DOD has been using to support its operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it will give the Air Force more time to decide on the future of its weather satellite program, it will provide an additional competitive space launch opportunity, and people within the national security community who deal with weather issues on a day to day basis "very, very much want to see that satellite launched."

SASC was not convinced.   The bill prohibits the use of funds for the DMSP program or for launch of DMSP-20 until the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that "non-material or lower cost solutions are insufficient."

On other matters, SASC  --

  • approves $20 million for the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, "an increase of $13.5 million to match the previous year funding level"
  • requires the President to establish an interagency process to develop a policy to deter adversaries in space
  • requires the Secretary of Defense to designate an individual to be the Principal Space Control Advisor
  • establishes a council to "review and be responsible for" DOD's positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) enterprise (GPS is a PNT system)
  • requires a plan for consolidating acquisition of commercial communication satellite services
  • requires an analysis of alternatives for replacing the Wideband Global Satellite System

Cause of Progress M-27M Failure Remains Elusive

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015 (Updated: 14-May-2015 09:07 AM)

Russian space experts continue to try to determine exactly what went wrong when Progress M-27M and its Soyuz 2.1a rocket separated on April 28.  Telemetry data reportedly are not enough to solve the mystery.

Russia's official Tass news agency quotes an unnamed Russian space industry source as saying that "the telemetry data are not enough" and members of the State Commission investigating the incident are going to the companies that manufactured various components to inspect others from the same batches to try and recreate whatever went wrong.

Roscosmos and NASA indicated earlier this week that the investigation would finish by May 22, but Tass reported today that may slip.  "True, some findings may be presented by May 22," it quotes the industry source, but "specialists will keep working at individual enterprises after that date."

Progress M-27M was launched on April 28, but something went wrong when it separated from the third stage of its Soyuz launch vehicle that left both of them in incorrect orbits and the robotic cargo spacecraft spinning.   Control of the spacecraft was lost and it reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 7 Eastern Standard Time (May 8 Moscow Time).  Initial speculation that the third stage exploded was ruled out in a preliminary report from the State Commission earlier this week. Roscosmos said on May 12  that determining the cause would require in depth computational and theoretical studies as well as modeling.

Russia, NASA and the other International Space Station (ISS) partners agreed on Tuesday to a revised schedule of crew and cargo flights to and from the ISS.  The return of Soyuz TMA-15M with three ISS crew members, planned for May 13, will wait until early June and the launch of their replacements was delayed from May 26 to July 24.   A different version of the Soyuz rocket is used for transporting crews to the ISS. 

The revised schedule calls for accelerating the next launch of a Progress cargo mission from August 6 to early July.   Progress M-27M was the second of four planned Progress launches to the ISS this year.  It was carrying three tons of food, fuel and other cargo.  NASA says that the loss of the spacecraft is not affecting U.S. operations on ISS, but Roscosmos has not indicated whether its crew activities are impacted.  

In addition to Russia's Progress, ISS is resupplied by two U.S. commercial cargo vehicles -- SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus -- and Japan's HTV.  A Dragon is currently attached to ISS and three more launches are scheduled this year.  An HTV launch is planned for August and a Cygnus is expected by the end of the year.   NASA said on Tuesday, however, that the schedule of launches for the rest of the year remains under review.

NASA refers to Progress M-27M as Progress 59 because it is the 59th Progress to service the ISS, but many more Progress missions have been conducted since the first was launched in 1977.  Progress cargo ships supported the Soviet/Russian space stations Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir before ISS.

House SS&T Approves Four Commercial Space Bills

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-May-2015 (Updated: 13-May-2015 11:35 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved four commercial space bills today after lengthy debate largely along partisan lines.  Thirteen amendments were offered to the main bill, the SPACE Act (H.R. 2262), an update of the Commercial Space Launch Act.  While Republicans touted a long list of endorsements from commercial space companies, Rep. Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX) did not find that surprising, protesting that "the bill came straight from industry."

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act is a broad bill with many provisions and it engendered lengthy debate.  House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) are original co-sponsors.   Perhaps the most significant amendment adopted to that bill was proposed by Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) to extend until 2025 the "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight as well as the FAA's authority to indemnify commercial space launch companies against certain amounts of third party liability in the event of a launch accident.

The learning period refers to a span of years when the FAA is not allowed to promulgate new regulations governing commercial human spaceflight that might stifle that industry's growth as it gains experience.  That period is set to expire on September 30, 2015.  The indemnification provision means that the government would pay for certain amounts of damages to uninvolved individuals in the event of a launch accident (the commercial companies must purchase insurance to cover other amounts).  The government has had Indemnification authority for commercial launches since 1988, but Congress extends it for set periods of time rather than permanently so it can periodically review whether it is still needed.  Current authority ends on December 31, 2016.

As introduced, H.R. 2262 would have extended the learning period and third-party indemnification to 2023.   Knight argued for another two years to provide stability for the commercial industry.  Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) offered amendments to reduce the time to 5 years for both provisions so Congress could have more opportunity to review the issues as the industry evolves.  She pointed out that the Senate version of the bill would extend those provisions only until 2020.  Nonetheless, Knight's amendment won.

The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act, H.R. 1508, sponsored by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), also was particularly controversial.  It grants property rights to materials mined on asteroids by U.S. companies.  The bill is co-sponsored by a Democrat, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), but he is not a member of House SS&T and Democrats on this committee strongly opposed it.   Johnson offered a substitute that would have called for a study of the issues associated with property rights in space, noting that at a hearing last year, a highly respected space lawyer, Joanne Gabrynowicz, asserted a prior version of the bill would violate U.S. obligations under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.   Johnson said that Gabrynowicz reviewed the current bill and had similar concerns.  Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) went further and said "the bill is unconstitutional, not even a close question."  Posey countered that there have been enough studies and what is needed now is action to ensure U.S. leadership in this pursuit.  As for the constitutionality question, he repeated a point made by Grayson that the founding fathers could not have imagined a time when laws were needed about mining other bodies in the solar system, and said that raising this as an issue was simply an obstructionist tactic.  Johnson's amendment failed on a party-line vote.

The other two bills were less controversial.   Rep. Bridenstine's (R-OK) Commercial Remote Sensing Act (H.R. 2261) and Rep. Rohrabacher's (R-CA) Office of Space Commerce Act (H.R. 2263) passed easily, with a relatively minor Grayson amendment adopted to H.R. 2261.  That bill seeks to facilitate NOAA granting licenses to commercial remote sensing companies in a timely manner.  H.R. 2263 would change the name of NOAA's Office of Space Commercialization to the Office of Space Commerce and expand its responsibilities.

The texts of all the bills and amendments and the disposition of the amendments are posted on the committee's website.

House Appropriators Propose Big Increase for Europa, SLS, Cut to Commercial Crew-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-May-2015 (Updated: 14-May-2015 02:55 PM)

UPDATE, MAY 14, 2015:  The subcommittee approved the draft bill today on a voice vote with no amendments.  The next step is full committee markup.  No date was announced.

ORIGINAL STORY, MAY 13, 2015: The House Appropriations Committee today released the draft FY2016 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that will be marked up at subcommittee level on Thursday.  It recommends the same total budget level for NASA as the President requested, but allocates the funding differently.  Among the changes is a big increase for a robotic mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, a favorite of subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) who has led successful efforts to add money for it in the past.  The Space Launch System (SLS) also gets a boost, including funds for an "enhanced" upper stage, while the commercial crew program is funded below the request.

The President is requesting $18.529 billion for NASA in FY2016 and that is the same as the subcommittee's recommendation, so any additions or reductions recommended in the bill take place in a zero-sum context -- if money is added for one activity, other activities suffer the consequences.

For example, the request includes only $30 million for a Europa mission. The bill allocates $140 million and specifies that it be launched by 2022 using NASA's Space Launch System (SLS), which is still in development.  In addition to that funding in the Science portion of NASA's budget, it specifies that $25 million of the $625 million recommended for Space Technology be spent on icy satellites surface technology and test beds.  Europa is one of those icy satellites (or "icy moons") -- a moon orbiting another planet in the solar system that is covered by ice.  NASA's current plan for a Europa mission is for an orbiter, but advocates are pushing for a lander as well. 

NASA officials do not see a funding path that permits a Europa launch before the mid-2020s, but the subcommittee clearly has other ideas.  Where the money will come from elsewhere in NASA's budget is not apparent in the bill.

The total amount recommended for Science in the draft bill is $5.237 billion, a $51 million cut compared to the $5.289 billion request.  Adding in the $110 million increase for Europa, that means other Science programs are absorbing a reduction of $161 million.  The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on April 30 approved, on a party-line vote, a 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill (H.R. 2039) that calls for deep cuts to NASA's earth science program raising concerns that is where appropriators also plan to cut. 

SLS fares very well in the bill.  The Obama Administration proposed cuts to both the SLS rocket and the Orion spacecraft.  SLS and Orion are priorities for both Republicans and Democrats in Congress and the Administration's decision to propose reductions heightens a long standing tension between the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue.  The NASA authorization bill approved by House SS&T would restore both SLS and Orion to their current funding levels, but the draft appropriations bill favors SLS over Orion.  In the draft bill, Orion would get the same as the Administration proposed for this year ($1.096 billion instead of its current $1.194 billion), but SLS would get a hefty increase.  For  development, SLS would get $1.85 billion.  The request is $1.36 billion and its current funding is $1.7 billion.  The draft appropriations bill makes the SLS amount look even larger by combining the funds for development and ground systems ($410 million, the same as the request), plus a new category of "program integration" funds at $53 million for FY2016.  That yields a total of $2.313 billion, which would compare with $1.766 billion in the request if the same accounts are combined.

The $1.85 billion for SLS development includes $50 million for an "enhanced" upper stage.  Many of the payloads expected to be launched by SLS require a large upper stage -- often called the "exploration upper stage" or EUS -- but NASA does not have the funds to build it now.  Instead it is developing a less capable interim upper stage for early SLS flights, but advocates think it would be more cost effective to move directly to the EUS.  The subcommittee apparently agrees.

The commercial crew program, by contrast, would get $1.00 billion compared to the $1.24 billion request.  That is still a significant increase over the $805 million provided for FY2015, but NASA insists that anything less than the request could mean renegotiating the fixed price contracts with SpaceX and Boeing.

A fact sheet provides a breakdown of what is proposed in the draft appropriations bill compared with the request, and a separate table shows what the House SS&T committee recommended in its authorization bill.


House Appropriators Praise FAA Space Office, But Will Deny Funding Increase-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-May-2015 (Updated: 13-May-2015 01:59 PM)

UPDATE, May 13, 2015:  The full committee approved the bill today with no changes to the FAA space office funding.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 12, 2015:  The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2016 Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) bill tomorrow (May 13).  It plans to hold the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) to its FY2015 funding level rather than approving a requested increase even though the draft report accompanying the bill praises the office and its intention to expand its efforts towards commercial lunar operations.

After expressing support for using NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) for commercial launches, the draft report lauds AST's "willingness to leverage its existing launch licensing authority to encourage private sector investment in lunar systems that will work in tandem with SLS and Orion" and asks for more details on specific "zones of exclusive operation on the lunar surface." 

It also encourages the FAA to issue regulations for insurance requirements for State and local property.  Only Federal property is addressed in existing regulations, which became an issue when the State of Virginia failed to insure its property at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility that was damaged by Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares failure in October 2014.

Despite asking AST to do this additional work, the committee proposes to deny a requested $1.5 million increase -- from $16.605 million in FY2015 to $18.114 million in FY2016.  Instead, the office would be level-funded.  AST is part of the FAA's operations budget and the total request is $9.915 billion.  The committee is set to approve $9.869 billion, a reduction of $45 million from the request, but $129 million more than FY2015. 

The draft report is based on the T-HUD subcommittee mark up of the bill on April 29.  Amendments could be offered at the full committee markup tomorrow or on the floor of the House when the bill is debated there.  The full committee markup is scheduled to begin at 10:15 am ET tomorrow.

Senate Commercial Space Launch Bill Includes Extending ISS to 2024-UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-May-2015 (Updated: 13-May-2015 02:01 PM)

UPDATE, May 13, 2015:  Senator Cruz issued a press statement today that includes expressions of support for the bill from a variety of commercial space industry companies and organizations.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 12, 2015: The sponsors of a bipartisan Senate bill to update the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) issued a statement today saying the bill responds to the needs of a changing industry.  The bill brings the future of the International Space Station (ISS) into the commercial space launch debate.  The two are intertwined with the advent of the commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, but the bill language is more general, formally committing the United States to ISS operations through 2024 as proposed by the White House last year.  The bill is quite different from legislation that will be marked up by a House committee tomorrow.

S. 1297 is co-sponsored on the Republican side by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and fellow presidential hopeful Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) along with freshman Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO).   Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) and freshman Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) represent the Democrats.  Cruz chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.  Peters is the top Democrat (ranking member) on that panel.  Nelson is the ranking member of the full committee. Cruz, Rubio, Nelson and Gardner are from States with strong government and commercial space sectors.

Entitled the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297 would extend the "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight, as well as the FAA's authority to provide third-party indemnification to U.S. launch services providers, to 2020.  The learning period refers to a span of years when the FAA is not allowed to promulgate new regulations governing commercial human spaceflight that might stifle that industry's growth as it gains experience.  The indemnification provision means that the government would pay for certain amounts of damages to uninvolved individuals in the event of a launch accident (the commercial companies must purchase insurance to cover other amounts).  The government has had Indemnification authority for commercial launches since 1988, but Congress extends it for set periods of time rather than permanently so it can periodically review whether it is still needed.

Those provisions are different from legislation that will be marked up by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee tomorrow.  That committee is set to debate four commercial space bills, one of which -- the SPACE Act, sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) -- is also intended to update CSLA.  The House and Senate bills are different in many ways.

The House bill would extend the learning period and third-party indemnification through 2023 rather than 2020.  It addresses a range of other issues including space traffic management and a sense of Congress statement that States should take proper measures to secure their investments in space launch facilities.

The Senate bill does not discuss either of those issues, but commits the United States to continued operation and utilization of ISS, which is not addressed in the House bill.  S. 1297 would enact into law a U.S. commitment to ISS operations through at least 2024, instead of at least 2020 as stated in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  The White House announced over a year ago that it plans to continue ISS operations through 2024, but that is not codified in law yet. 

The Senate bill also calls on the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to determine what federal agenc(ies) should oversee various aspects of the commercial utilization of space, and for the FAA to streamline approval of licenses and permits for hybrid vehicles that currently must deal with two separate FAA offices.

S. 1297 also includes language requiring the Secretary of Transportation in consultation with the Secretary of Defense and others to submit a study on the feasibility of releasing "safety-related space situational awareness [SSA] data and information."  DOD's willingness (or lack thereof) to release certain SSA data on the locations of U.S. and other satellites to commercial space operators is a long-running debate.  While SSA is part of space traffic management, the provisions in the House and Senate bills seem only tangentially related to each other.

There are similarities, though.  Both bills add and define "government astronaut" as a type of individual who might be aboard a commercial human space flight, encourage industry to develop voluntary standards for commercial human spaceflight, smooth the process for moving from experimental permit to a license, and encourage the FAA to update how it calculates "maximum probable loss" in determining how much insurance commercial launch services companies must purchase.

The House and Senate bills both are very broad and include many other provisions.

The Senate Commerce Committee has not announced a date to mark up S. 1297.  Cruz held a hearing on commercial space issues on February 25 and he has stated several times that updating CSLA is his first priority as subcommittee chairman. 

Space Station Crew Return Delayed Until June, Next Launch Until July

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-May-2015 (Updated: 12-May-2015 04:44 PM)

NASA and its partners in the International Space Station (ISS) program decided today to extend the mission of three ISS crew members who were supposed to return to Earth tomorrow and postpone the launch of their replacements. The schedule change was prompted by the failure of Russia's robotic Progress M-27M spacecraft last week.

Progress M-27M reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 7 Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) and Roscosmos proposed changes to ISS crew and cargo flights at that time.  NASA announced today agreement among all the partners to the revised schedule, though exact dates have not been determined.  The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency (ESA).

NASA's Terry Virts, ESA's Samantha Cristoforetti and Roscosmos' Anton Shkaplerov were scheduled to return to Earth on their Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft tomorrow (May 13).  The exact date for their rescheduled return in early June will be determined later.  The launch of their replacements on Soyuz TMA-17M will be postponed from May 26 to late July.   The three other ISS crew members now aboard ISS are NASA's Scott Kelly, and Roscosmos' Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka.  Kelly and Kornienko are part of the first one-year mission aboard ISS and will not return until March 2016.  Padalka is currently scheduled to come home in September.

Progress M-27M was launched on April 28, 2015 EDT and immediately ran into trouble.  A malfunction at the time it separated from the third stage of its Soyuz 2.1a rocket left both in incorrect orbits and the Progress spacecraft spinning.  One theory is that the third stage exploded, debris punctured the spacecraft's fuel line, and venting fuel put Progress into a spin.  Roscosmos said today that the State Commission investigating the accident will conclude its work by May 22.

Progress M-27M was the second of four planned Progress cargo missions to the ISS this year.  The next had been scheduled for August 6, but the new schedule will accelerate that by about a month.

The new plan is as follows:

  • Return of Soyuz TMA-15M (Virts, Cristoforetti, Shkaplerov) in early June instead of on May 13
  • Progress M-28M launch in early July instead of August 6
  • Launch of Soyuz TMA-17M with Kjell Lindgren (NASA), Kimiya Yui (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos) in late July instead of on May 26

NASA refers to Progress M-27M as Progress 59 because it is the 59th Progress to resupply ISS, but the Progress spacecraft has been in use by Russia since 1977 so there have been many more flights than that.  It was carrying three tons of food, fuel and other supplies for the ISS crew, but NASA insists that U.S. operations are not affected by the failure.  

A U.S. SpaceX Dragon cargo craft is currently attached to the ISS, and three more are scheduled this year.  Japan's HTV cargo spacecraft is scheduled for launch in August and the U.S. Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft is expected to be launched by the end of the year.  NASA said, however, that all of the dates for the remaining flights to ISS this year are under review. 

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