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GAO Requested to Study Restoring FAA Commercial Space Office to Secretary's Level

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-May-2017 (Updated: 11-May-2017 12:36 AM)

Three members of the House have sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a study on the feasibility of elevating the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) to the Secretary of Transportation's office. Advocates believe that would facilitate getting needed financial and personnel resources to allow the office to fulfill its duties as the commercial space launch business expands.

Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Washington), Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) and Ami Bera (D-California) sent a letter to GAO on May 8 asking that it examine the following questions:

  • the feasibility of moving AST back into the Secretary's office and what would be required to accomplish it;
  • the advantages and disadvantages of doing so in terms of AST's ability to coordinate and communicate with the FAA on airspace issues; and
  • the key practices identified by GAO in other reorganizations that would be instructive for a successful transition of this nature.

President Ronald Reagan assigned responsibility for regulating the nascent U.S. commercial space launch industry to the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 1983, an action that was codified in law by the 1984 Commercial Space Transportation Act.  The Office of Commercial Space Transportation was established as part of the Secretary of Transportation's office at that time. In 1995, however, it was reassigned to the FAA, one of the eight administrations within DOT.

Similarly, the Office of Space Commerce in the Department of Commerce (DOC) was reassigned from the Secretary of Commerce's office to NOAA.  Bridenstine is one of three members of Congress circulating a discussion draft of a bill that would, among other things. restore that office to its previous status in DOC.  (No bill has been introduced yet.  What is being circulated is a draft bill for discussion purposes to obtain input from stakeholders.)

Congress has passed a number of laws over the past three decades that amend the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act or govern other commercial space activities such as commercial satellite remote sensing, most recently the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Congressional action is continuing as the commercial space sector grows and many in Congress want to establish a regime with minimal regulation that provides regulatory certainty for potential investors.

FAA/AST is funded as part of the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill.  Kilmer is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.  He and Bridenstine worked together to win a requested increase for FAA/AST's budget in FY2017 from $17.8 million to $19.8 million.  Earlier this year, Bridenstine testified to the T-HUD subcommittee to argue for an increase to $23 million in FY2018.  (At the hearing he also won an endorsement to become the next NASA Administrator from Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who chairs the subcommittee that funds NASA).

Bera is the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Heather Wilson Confirmed as Secretary of the Air Force

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-May-2017 (Updated: 09-May-2017 12:55 AM)

Former Congresswoman Heather Wilson has been confirmed by the Senate to serve as the next Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF).  The vote was 76-22.

Wilson was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) last month, but an unnamed Senator reportedly put a hold on her confirmation vote pending answers about a military installation in his or her state.  Apparently the answers were received and the vote was scheduled for today (May 8).

Wilson graduated from the Air Force Academy in 1982 with a bachelor of science degree.  She then earned masters and doctorate degrees in international relations as a Rhodes Scholar at England's Oxford University.  She served as a Captain in Europe and then joined the White House National Security Council staff under President George H.W. Bush.  A decade later, in 1998, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from New Mexico's 1st district and served there until 2009.  In 2008, she had decided to run for the Senate, but lost in the primary.  She ran again for the Senate in 2012, but lost in the general election.  She has been President of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, SD since 2013, the first female President of the University.

Heather WIlson.  Photo credit: South Dakota School of Mines & Technology website.

Wilson will succeed Deborah Lee James as SecAF, who left at the end of the Obama Administration.   Lisa Disbrow, a retired Air Force Reserve Colonel with 30 years of national security experience including serving as a senior systems engineer at the National Reconnaissance Office, has been Acting SecAF since James's departure.

Wilson is the first service secretary to be confirmed in the Trump Administration.  The original nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy withdrew because of financial entanglements.  President Trump then nominated Mark Green to be Secretary of the Army, but he withdrew last week because of criticism over comments he is said to have made that were offensive to the LGBT community and Muslims.  He denies the remarks, but said his nomination had become a distraction.

The Air Force is the major military service that builds and operates satellites and acquires launches for them.  It has been DOD's "executive agent" for space for many years, but an attempt was made during the Obama Administration to better coordinate space activities throughout DOD by creating the position of Principal DOD Space Advisor (PDSA).  As SecAF, James was named to that position in October 2015 in addition to her other duties.   It is difficult to assess the office's effectiveness in such a short period of time, but DOD continues to be criticized for not being organized effectively to deal with space matters.  It is not clear if the PDSA position will survive or if it will be abolished in the Trump Administration.

During her March 30 confirmation hearing before SASC, she said she was looking forward to serving in that position, however.  "One of the things I'm most looking forward to about this job is being the, potentially, the senior advisor to the Secretary of Defense with respect to space and chairing the Defense Space Council.  There is no question that space will be a contested domain in any future conflict."   She added that she was a member of the House Intelligence Committee when China launched its anti-satellite (ASAT) test in 2007 "and I don't expect that things have slowed down since then."


Draft Bill Would Give Commerce, Not FAA, "Mission Authorization" Function

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-May-2017 (Updated: 08-May-2017 11:59 PM)

A draft bill being circulated for discussion would assign to the Department of Commerce (DOC) responsibility for registering non-government space activities to ensure, among other things, compliance with U.S. treaty obligations.  For more than a year, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) has been in the forefront of such discussions.  The draft bill instead would consolidate most of the government's authority for overseeing commercial space activities in DOC's Office of Space Commerce and elevate that office to a higher level in the department.

The draft American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2017 is a comprehensive commercial space regulatory streamlining bill being circulated for comment by Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Brian Babin (R-TX) and Jim Bridenstine (R-OK).  Smith chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  Babin chairs its Space Subcommittee.  Bridenstine is a member of both and a candidate to become the next NASA Administrator. 

Last year, Bridenstine was championing the idea of expanding FAA/AST's responsibilities to include what is sometimes called "mission authorization" -- providing the authorization and continual supervision of non-governmental space activities required by Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. It was also the position of the Obama White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which was required by the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) to submit a report to Congress with recommendations on how to fulfill those treaty obligations.  OSTP submitted the report on April 4, 2016.  FAA is part of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and OSTP recommended that DOT take on the mission authorization task. obtained a copy of the new draft legislation.  It does not use the term "mission authorization," but the function would be assigned to the Department of Commerce instead of FAA.  The bill is much more far-reaching, however.  It basically would reset U.S. government oversight and regulation of commercial space activities, consolidating most of it at Commerce and giving the department only a very light regulatory hand.

In a written statement to, Bridenstine said that although his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) last year called for expanding FAA's regulatory role, he now is supporting the approach proposed in this draft legislation.  "I laid out one legislative solution in [ASRA], but my objective over the past several years has been to find a solution that can gain a consensus on Capitol Hill and achieve that policy outcome.  Working closely with Chairman Smith and Chairman Babin, we have developed proposed legislation to create certainty with minimal regulatory burden for the commercial space industry.  This is a strong starting point and I look forward to working with the chairmen and stakeholders to strengthen the bill."

Responsibilities today are split.  FAA/AST regulates and facilitates commercial space launch and reentries (but not what takes place in space).  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) assigns radio spectrum to commercial satellite operators ensuring compliance with International Telecommunication Union (ITU) requirements and promulgates space debris mitigation regulations. NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce, licenses commercial earth remote sensing satellites.

The Office of Space Commerce (OSC) also is part of NOAA.  Created in the 1980s, originally it was part of the Secretary of Commerce's office, but later was renamed the Office of Space Commercialization and transferred to NOAA, one of the dozen bureaus and offices in the Department.  CSLCA restored its original name and this bill would restore its original status.  Instead of being part of NOAA and headed by a director appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, the office would be physically located at the same place as the Secretary of Commerce and headed by an Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Space Commerce appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.  That person would report directly to the Secretary.

Today, OSC is a very small office with a budget in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions.  It is responsible for promoting commercial space activities, but its budget in FY2015 and in FY2016 was only $600,000.  The Obama Administration requested a $1.4 million increase for FY2017, bringing the total to $2 million, but Congress provided only $200,000 of that increase, giving the office a total of $800,000 for FY2017.

The revitalized OSC envisioned in this draft legislation would play a much bigger role.  U.S. non-governmental entities would need to register their activities with OSC, which could accept or deny the registration based on strict rules and timetables established in the bill.  For example, the Secretary of Commerce would have 60 days to approve an application or not.  If it is disapproved, a clear explanation must be provided and the applicant may reapply to address the shortcomings.  If the Secretary does not act within 60 days, the application is automatically approved. The Secretary could waive registration for a space object if it is "too trivial or minor to merit consideration" or would be operated in conjunction with another space object that is registered. 

Once a registration is approved, no other part of the government could prevent launch or reentry on the basis of national security, foreign policy, or U.S. international obligations. It is solely the Secretary of Commerce's responsibility to determine if the proposed activity conforms with U.S. international obligations such as preventing the launch of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction, as required under the Outer Space Treaty.  In a sense, this is the mission authorization function envisioned by OSTP, although it is not called that in the draft bill.

The FAA/AST would retain its role in regulating commercial space launch and reentries, but no longer could review U.S. payloads for anything other than safety.  Its current authority to review payloads for safety, national security, foreign policy and international obligations would apply only to foreign payloads under this draft bill. The FCC would still assign radio spectrum, ensure compliance with ITU international obligations, and regulate communication satellite operations, but no longer would be involved in on-orbit space debris or end-of-life satellite operations or ensuring compliance with any U.S. foreign obligations. NOAA's Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs would be abolished, with OSC taking on those duties.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has already held several hearings on commercial space topics over the past year or so, including regulation of commercial remote sensing satellites. That committee took the lead in crafting and passing existing law on that topic -- the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act.   Despite its best efforts to set time limits on how long the government can take to approve applications to build, launch and operate commercial remote sensing satellites, however, national security agencies have "stopped the clock" on some applications, turning what should be a 120-day process into one that can take years.  Much has changed in the commercial remote sensing satellite marketplace since 1992 as well, making the regulatory environment ripe for review.

This draft legislation would streamline that process.  It states as U.S. policy that "to the maximum extent practicable, the Federal government shall take steps to protect the national security interests of the United States that do not involve regulating or limiting the freedoms of United States non-governmental entities to explore and use space, which shall include Federal government agencies mitigating against any threats to national security posed by United States citizen exploration and use of outer space by changing Federal government activities and operations."

The Secretary of Commerce, and only the Secretary of Commerce, is authorized to permit U.S. entities to operate commercial remote sensing satellites: "No other agency has the authority to authorize, place conditions on, or supervise space-based remote sensing systems."  Furthermore, the Secretary may not place conditions on the permits approved for such U.S. systems if substantially similar capabilities are already available or expected to become available in 3 years from other domestic or foreign commercial sources.  As with the other commercial space activities, the Secretary has 60 days to make a decision or the permit is automatically approved.  If the Secretary determines the system poses a "significant" national security threat, the permit may be granted with conditions to ameliorate those concerns, or denied.  The word significant is defined as imminent, cannot practically be mitigated by changes to federal government activities or operations, and is not currently presented by a foreign actor or expected to be within 3 years.

This draft bill builds on hearings already held by the committee, including one in March that aired different points of view on how to ensure U.S. compliance with the Outer Space Treaty.  Whether the committee will hold a hearing specifically on this bill or not remains to be seen.  The purpose of circulating the discussion draft is to gather input from those who would be affected by it and then determine the next steps.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 8-12, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-May-2017 (Updated: 08-May-2017 08:28 AM)

Here's our list of space policy events for the week of May 8-12, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.

During the Week

Although the House is taking a week off from Washington duties to check in with constituents back home, the Senate is in session.  Tomorrow (Monday) it is scheduled to vote on the nomination of former Congresswoman Heather Wilson to be Secretary of the Air Force. Her nomination was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) last month.  If approved, the Republican who represented the 1st district of New Mexico from 1998-2009 will succeed Deborah Lee James in that role.  Lisa Disbrow has been serving as Acting SecAF since James left on January 20 when the Obama Administration ended.  Wilson would become the first service secretary confirmed in the Trump Administration.  Trump's original nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy withdrew because of financial entanglements.  Trump then nominated Mark Green to be Secretary of the Army, but he withdrew last week because of opposition that developed in reaction to views he is said to have expressed that were offensive to the LGBT community and to Muslims.  Green denied them, but said his nomination had become a "distraction" and therefore withdrew.

Tuesday-Thursday is the 4th Humans To Mars (H2M) Summit, organized by Explore Mars and once again held at George Washington University in Washington, DC.  The event will be webcast.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot will speak at 9:00 am ET on Tuesday, followed by a panel of NASA's Associate Administrators (AAs) for Human Exploration and Operations (Bill Gerstenmaier), Science (Thomas Zurbuchen), and Space Technology (Steve Jurczyk).  Gerstenmaier's deputy for policy and plans Greg Williams then will lay out NASA's current planning for a Deep Space Gateway and Deep Space Transport.   And that's all in just the first two hours!  It's a jam packed agenda.  For those who will be there in person, Leonard David will have a book signing event on Tuesday at lunchtime for his National Geographic book "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet."   David will also be on a panel discussion at a pre-event on Monday evening (separate registration required) with Pascal Lee (Mars Institute), Penny Boston (NASA Astrobiology Institute), and Keith Cowing (NASAWatch).  On Wednesday morning, Jeff Foust (Space News), Frank Morring (Aviation Week) and your faithful editor will be on a panel moderated by former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan.  On Thursday morning, there's a panel on "Is the Moon a Good Step on the Way to Mars" with Scott Pace (GWU Space Policy Institute and former NASA AA for program analysis and evaluation); Doug Cooke (former NASA AA for Exploration Systems), Tony Antonelli (Lockheed Martin, former astronaut), and Peter McGrath (Boeing), moderated by Kathy Laurini (NASA Senior Advisor for Exploration and Space Operations).  Lots more than can be previewed here.  Check out the agenda.

For anyone who can tear themselves away from H2M on Tuesday, the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) is hosting a luncheon with a very interesting group of speakers on "Defense Space Priorities in the New Administration."  It's at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, VA (not to be confused with the Army & Navy Club on 17th St. in D.C.).  Moderated by Todd Harrison from CSIS, the speakers include: John Hill, Acting DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy; David Hardy, Associate Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space; Col. Sidney Conner, USAF, Deputy Director Space Programs Assistant Secretary (Acquisition); Chirag Parikh, Deputy Director, Counterproliferation, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; and Lindsay Millard, Program Manager, Tactical Technology Office, DARPA.  Hope you've got your tickets already.  Pre-registration ended May 5.

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

Monday, May 8

Tuesday, May 9

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 9-10

Tuesday-Thursday, May 9-11

  • Humans to Mars (H2M) Summit, George Washington University, Washington, DC, webcast  (pre-event activities on Monday, May 8, require separate registration)

Wednesday, May 10

Thursday, May 11

Friday, May 12

Senate Joins House in Approving FY2017 Approps Bill - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2017 (Updated: 05-May-2017 04:22 PM)

The Senate passed the FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill today.  President Trump is expected to sign it into law before midnight tomorrow.  Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) won praise from Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) for winning the increase in NASA's budget that will boost it to $19.653 billion.  Meanwhile, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) also took credit for the increase and vowed that it is just the beginning. [UPDATE, May 5:  President Trump has signed the bill into law.]

Nelson is well known as an avid NASA supporter and is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees the agency.  When he was a member of the House, he became the second politician to fly into space aboard the space shuttle (the first was Sen. Jake Garn, a Republican from Utah).  Schumer said today that NASA had been targeted for certain cuts, but received an increase instead thanks to Nelson: "There is no one who has done more for [NASA] than Bill Nelson."

The $19.653 billion for FY2017 is $368 million above NASA's FY2016 funding level.

Nelson offered his "profound thanks" to Schumer and the other "big four" congressional leaders (the House and Senate Majority and MInority Leaders) and the bipartisanship that made it all possible.  "America's civilian space program should not be a partisan subject" and the new head of NASA should be nonpartisan, he urged.  "The leaders of NASA should not be partisans.  As a matter of fact, they should even be more than bipartisan.  They should be nonpartisans.  And that has been the tradition of NASA, so like the Secretary of Defense, you consider the appointment a nonpartisan."

A leading contender for NASA Administrator is Rep. Jim Bridenstine, a Republican member of the House from Oklahoma, but it is not at all clear that Nelson was suggesting that he is not the right person to lead the agency.   Several Secretaries of Defense have been former members of the House or Senate and/or held high level positions in Republican or Democratic administrations.  Their stewardship of DOD was widely considered nonpartisan, however.

Nelson ended his remarks by saying that "In this time when we find ourselves far too divided in our politics, the exploration of space continues to be a powerful force that brings us together into our search as we explore the universe."

Meanwhile, Culberson spoke to a meeting of the National Academies' Space Studies Board (SSB) this afternoon.  Culberson chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and is an ardent supporter, especially of its robotic planetary exploration including a mission to explore Jupiter's moon Europa.  The appropriations bill increases the planetary science budget to $1.846 billion, significantly more than the Obama Administration requested, including $275 million for Europa.  

According to a series of tweets from Space News' Jeff Foust, he took credit for the overall NASA increase while also thanking his Senate counterpart, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL).  Culberson asserted that he plans to boost the planetary science budget above $2 billion and the total NASA budget "well north" of $20 billion.  

He also said that the earth science budget held its own despite "intense pressure" to cut it, and he would continue to "protect" it. 

Those comments echoed remarks he made earlier this year.  Culberson also reportedly told SSB members "not to worry" about President Trump's FY2018 budget request for NASA.  The request is for $19.1 billion, slightly less than the $19.285 billion NASA received for FY2016, but now quite a bit less than the FY2017 allocation.   Trump's request would eliminate NASA's Office of Education and cut the earth science budget, though much less than supporters feared.

The bill. H.R. 244. now goes to President Trump's desk for signature. Trump said recently that he thought a government shutdown would be "good" for the nation, but he was referring to FY2018 appropriations, not this bill. He is expected to sign it to keep the government operating through September 30, the end of FY2017.  What happens after that remains to be seen.

Congress Advances FY2017 Appropriations, Space Weather Legislation

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-May-2017 (Updated: 03-May-2017 11:25 PM)

Congress is making progress on passing the final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill as well as legislation to clarify federal responsibilities for space weather research and forecasting.

Today, the House passed the appropriations bill, H.R. 244, by a vote of 309-118.   It combines 11 of the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills, including the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill that funds NASA and NOAA (the 12th, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, passed last year).  The bill provides $19.65 billion for NASA and $1.979 billion for NOAA satellite acquisition.   The Senate is expected to vote on it tomorrow.  The President must sign it into law by midnight Friday to avoid a government shutdown.

President Trump tweeted yesterday that  "Our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess."   He probably meant October, the beginning of the next fiscal year (FY2018).  Thus he is expected to sign this bill, which funds the government through the end of FY2017 on September 30. 

The government has been operating on a series of Continuing Resolutions since FY2017 began on October 1, 2016, so the government is already 7 months into the fiscal year.  Many of the members who spoke during debate on the bill today lamented the delay.

President Trump is scheduled to send his complete FY2018 budget request to Congress on May 15.  He submitted a "budget blueprint" or "skinny budget" in March, but Congress has been waiting for the details.  Congress will have between then and September 30 to craft a bill for the upcoming fiscal year.  Much can happen between now and then so it remains to be seen whether the President continues to describe a government shutdown as "good."  The current focus is getting through the rest of FY2017 and the House vote today is a step forward in that direction.

Separately, the Senate passed the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) yesterday.  The original bill did not clear the 114th Congress and a new version was introduced this year by Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and a set of bipartisan co-sponsors.  It was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on March 30 and passed the Senate on May 2 by unanimous consent.  The bill focuses on policy and does not authorize funding. 

A major focus is interagency coordination and cooperation.  The bill directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and its National Science and Technology Council to serve a coordinating role "to improve the nation's ability to prepare, avoid, mitigate, respond to, and recover from potentially devastating impacts of space weather events."  The principle agencies involved in research and forecasting are NOAA, NASA, DOD and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Space weather is caused by particles emitted by the Sun that can damage satellites and ground-based infrastructure like the electric grid. Key satellites that monitor the Sun for such eruptions are located at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.  The NASA-NOAA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) arrived there last year, joining two older spacecraft -- NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE), launched in 1997, and the European Space Agency's (ESA) Solar and Heliospherics Observatory (SOHO), launched in 1996.  SOHO has a special type of telescope called a coronagraph (this one is named LASCO) that provides the first indication of an eruption.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization. 

The bill directs NOAA, in cooperation with ESA, to maintain operations of LASCO as long as possible and prioritize the reception of LASCO data.  NOAA is then directed to work with NASA and DOD to develop options for additional capabilities to monitor the Sun and take into consideration "commercial solutions, prize authority, academic and international partnerships, microsatellites, ground-based instruments" and opportunities to deploy instruments as secondary payloads.  NOAA is also directed, in coordination with DOD, to develop requirements and plans for follow-on space-based observations.

NOAA is already at work on the last item.  Its FY2017 budget request proposed a new "space weather follow on" program under which it would build and launch two space weather satellites, the first of which would be in place before the end of DSCOVR's design lifetime in 2022.  Only $2.5 million was requested to begin planning, but funding would ramp up quickly after that.  In the FY2017 omnibus appropriations, Congress doubled that funding to $5 million.

S. 141 also directs NASA to "seek to implement" missions identified in the most recent Decadal Survey on heliophysics from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, and for the Academies to review a set of "benchmarks" for space weather metrics the bill requires to be established.  

The bill now goes to the House for consideration. Sen. Peters urged the House to act "swiftly ... so we are well prepared to predict and avoid a possible worst case scenario space weather event."

Future Polar Weather Satellites Down, Space Weather Up in NOAA's FY2017 Final Appropriations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2017 (Updated: 01-May-2017 05:06 PM)

NOAA's Polar Follow On (PFO) program to build the third and fourth Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) weather spacecraft is the only satellite program that will be cut substantially in the final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill.   By contrast, funding for a follow-on space weather satellite is doubled compared to the request, although the request was only $2.5 million.  Congressional leaders reached agreement on a "full year" omnibus appropriations package last night.  It is expected to clear Congress and be signed into law before Friday when the Continuing Resolution (CR) currently funding the government expires.

Overall, NOAA's request for procurement, acquisition and construction of satellites was $2.063 billion and Congress is poised to approve $1.979 billion.

NOAA operates the nation's civil weather satellites.  JPSS is a new generation of polar orbiting satellites that circle Earth's poles, providing data on every part of the planet.   The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) spacecraft are placed into geostationary orbit above the equator, a location particularly useful for monitoring tropical regions where hurricanes form.  NOAA is just introducing the latest version of the GOES satellites, referred to generically as "GOES-R" although GOES-R itself is just one spacecraft and is already in orbit.  It is part of a set of four satellites, with the remaining three (-S, -T, and -U) scheduled for launch over the next decade.

NOAA defines the JPSS program itself as only the first two satellites in the series.  JPSS-1 is scheduled for launch in late September 2017 and JPSS-2 in the fall of 2022.  The next two spacecraft, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, are funded separately in the PFO program with launch dates later in the 2020s.  Based on advice from independent review committees, NOAA is hoping to build all four spacecraft in close order to achieve economies of scale and be prepared if any of them fail prematurely or are lost in a launch accident.

The omnibus appropriations bill fully funds JPSS and GOES-R, but cuts funding for PFO by $64 million, providing $328.9 million instead of the $393 million requested. The explanatory statement accompanying the bill does not explain why PFO was cut.  The $393 million request included $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) to build a very small satellite to host a microwave sensor in case anything goes wrong with JPSS-1.  The microwave measurements are critical to weather forecasting.  Congress has not been enthusiastic about EON-MW, but agreed in the omnibus bill that NOAA could proceed with it as long as the PFO program is not negatively impacted.

NOAA uses radio occultation data to improve weather forecasts.  Measurements of temperature and water vapor in the lower atmosphere are obtained using signals from satellites like GPS that provide positioning, navigation and timing data.  It has a cooperative program with Taiwan to build and launch COSMIC satellites to provide that data and is seeking funds to build a new generation of those small satellites. Congress directed NOAA to begin a "commercial weather data pilot" program to purchase such data from commercial companies instead, however.  NOAA is proceeding with that effort, but requested funds for a new set of satellites anyway.  The omnibus bill denies the funding ($8.1 million) for the satellites, but approves an equal amount for the associated ground system.  As for the commercial weather data pilot program, it provides the requested level of $5 million.

NOAA also is responsible for operational space weather forecasting -- monitoring the Sun for ejections of particles that can impact the Earth and cause outages in the electric grid and spacecraft, for example.   NOAA is currently operating the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), located  at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.  DSCOVR has four instruments, two of which are dedicated to space weather.   Space weather has become of increasing concern because of the growing reliance, on Earth and in space, on technologies susceptible to temporary or permanent damage.  NOAA wants to get started on a replacement for DSCOVR.  The $2.5 million requested for FY2017 is just the beginning of an effort to acquire two satellites, the first of which would be in place by 2022, the design lifetime of DSCOVR.  In the FY2017 budget request, NOAA projected requesting a total of $368 million from FY2018-FY2021 for the satellites, sensors, and launch vehicles.

In action last year, the House Appropriations Committee approved the request, while the Senate Appropriations Committee tripled it to $7.5 million.  The final figure in the new omnibus appropriations bill, $5 million, is the compromise.  (Some Senators have been focusing on the space weather issue for several years.  Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and six bipartisan co-sponsors reintroduced the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act earlier this year.  S. 141 was reported from the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on March 30, 2017.)

The omnibus appropriations bill combines 11 of the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills (the 12th, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, was the only FY2017 appropriations bill to clear Congress last year).  The government has been operating on a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) at their FY2016 spending levels since October 1, 2016 when FY2017 began.  The most recent CR, passed last Friday, expires this Friday, May 5.  The goal is to get the omnibus bill signed into law before then.

The next step is for the bill, H.R. 244 as amended, to obtain a "rule" from the House Rules Committee that determines what amendments (if any) may be introduced and sets the amount of time for debate.  The committee will meet tomorrow at 3:00 pm to consider the bill.   H.R. 244 is being used as the legislative vehicle for the omnibus appropriations bill.  It originated as a bill on an unrelated topic (HIRE Vets).  It is common for Congress to use an existing, unrelated bill for an appropriations measure like this because it has already gone through part of the legislative process so can move along quickly.  The bill and explanatory statement are posted on the Rules Committee website.

An updated version of's fact sheet on NOAA's FY2017 budget request will be posted soon.  It has a table comparing FY2016 appropriations with the request as it worked its way through Congress.  The fact sheet will be available from the left menu on our home page under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports."  A fact sheet on NOAA's FY2018 budget request is also there with as much information as is known at the moment.

Final FY2017 Appropriations Bill Gives NASA Big Boost

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2017 (Updated: 05-May-2017 04:22 PM)

Over the weekend, congressional leaders agreed on a final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill.  NASA would be funded at $19.653 billion, a substantial increase over the amount requested last year by President Obama and somewhat more than approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees.  The recommendations approved by the committees were never finalized by Congress last year.  In the intervening months, the committees obviously found a way to direct even more funding to the space agency.

The bill, H.R. 244 as amended, still must pass the House and Senate, but key members of both chambers clearly believe they have the votes to do so.  President Trump would then have to sign it into law.  Presumably congressional leaders have coordinated with the White House to ensure that happens even though the bill does not include elements of the supplemental request Trump sent to Congress in March, such as funding for the border wall with Mexico.  That will be debated as part of the FY2018 appropriations process.

Congress is using H.R. 244 as the legislative vehicle for the omnibus appropriations bill.  It originally was on an unrelated topic (HIRE Vets).  It is common for Congress to use an existing, unrelated bill as a vehicle for an appropriations measure like this because it has already gone through part of the legislative process so can move along quickly.

FY2017 is more than half over already.  It began on October 1, 2016.  The government has been operating under a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that fund agencies at their FY2016 levels. The most recent CR, passed last Friday, expires this Friday, May 5.  This new "full year" omnibus appropriations bill is expected to pass the House as early as Wednesday, followed by Senate passage soon thereafter to complete action on the FY2017 budget before that deadline.

This is an omnibus appropriations bill that combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills into one package (the 12th bill, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, is the only one that cleared Congress last year).   The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) portion, which funds NASA and NOAA, is Division B.

President Obama's FY2017 budget request for NASA was convoluted.  Although NASA budget materials show the request as $19.025 billion, only $18.262 billion was requested from appropriated funds -- the money over which appropriations committees have jurisdiction.  The remaining $763 million comprised $663 million that somehow was supposed to be extracted from the "mandatory" portion of the budget that funds programs like Medicare and Social Security, plus $100 million from a tax Obama wanted to impose on oil companies. The appropriations committees ignored that part of the request and dealt only with the $18.262 billion request for appropriated funds.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.306 billion, close to the $19.285 billion Congress provided for NASA in FY2016.   The House Appropriations Committee was more generous, approving $19.508 billion. 

The final bill adds even more, providing a total of $19.653 billion, an increase of  $1.391 billion over Obama's request for appropriated funds. 

Key elements of the funding provided for NASA include the following.  Comparisons to "the request" are to the amounts requested from appropriated funds (i.e., excluding the mythical $763 million).  An updated version of's NASA budget fact sheet will be posted soon (available from our left menu under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports").  It includes a table comparing FY2016 appropriations with the FY2017 request as it worked its way through the authorization and appropriation processes.

  • Science:  $5.765 billion (the request was $5.303 billion).
    • Earth science: $1.921 billion, including $90 million for PACE and $130.9 million for Landsat 9 (President Trump has proposed cancelling PACE in his FY2018 budget request).  The request was $1.973 billion.
    • Planetary science: $1.846 billion, including $363 million for outer planets of which $275 million is for the Europa mission.  The request was $1.391 billion. 
    • Astrophysics: $750 million, including $105 million for WFIRST, $85.2 million for SOFIA, and $98.3 million for Hubble.  The request was $696.5 million.
    • James Webb Space Telescope:  $569.4 million, the same as the request.
    • Heliophysics: $678.5 million.  The request was $673.7 million.
    • Education and Public Outreach:  $37 million to be derived equally from planetary science and astrophysics and administered by the Astrophysics Division (this amount is included in the $750 million for astrophysics, not in addition to it, according to a table in the report accompanying the bill)
  • Aeronautics:  $660 million (the request was $634.5 million).
  • Space Technology:  $686.5 million (the request was $690.6 million), including $35 million for nuclear propulsion, $30 million for small launch capabilities, $35 million for additive manufacturing, $25.718 million for optical communications, and $66.6 million for solar electric propulsion.
  • Exploration:  $4.324 billion (the request was $3.164 billion), including direction that NASA continue to develop advanced propulsion, asteroid deflection and grappling technologies associated with the Asteroid Redirect Mission but "these activities should not distract from the overarching goal of sending humans to Mars" and $75 million is designated for habitation augmentation activities.  
  • Space Operations: $4.951 billion (the request was $5.076 billion), including the full request of $1.185 billion for commercial crew and "up to" $1.028 billion for commercial cargo.  No further breakdown was provided.
  • Education:  $100 million (the request was $100.1 million), including $18 million for EPSCoR, $40 million for Space Grant, $32 million for MUREP, and $10 million for STEM Education and Accountability Projects (President Trump has proposed eliminating NASA's Office of Education in his FY2018 budget request).
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services: $2.769 billion (the request was $2.837 billion).
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration (CECR): $360.7 million (the request was $419.8 million).
  • Office of Inspector General:  $37.9 million (the request was $38.1 million).

The big winners were planetary exploration and human exploration.  Many other accounts also saw increases of varying magnitude.  Space Operations was the only area of flight programs to get less than requested -- $4.951 billion instead of $5.0976 billion.  Since commercial crew and commercial cargo were funded at their requested levels, the reductions will have to come from other parts of the account such as International Space Station operations or Space and Flight Support.  The $68 million cut to Safety, Security and Mission Services and the $59 million cut to CECR could affect NASA's internal operations.  They fund day-to-day operations and construction projects at NASA's field centers around the country, for example, including cybersecurity activities.

The next step for the omnibus appropriations bill is to get a "rule" from the House Rules Committee spelling out what amendments may be offered (if any) and how much time is allowed for debate.  The committee will meet tomorrow (Tuesday) at 3:00 pm ET.   The text of the bill and explanatory statement are posted on the Rules Committee's website.  The bill will then go the House floor for debate and a vote, then to the Senate, then to the President's desk.  That is all expected to completed before Friday midnight when the existing CR expires.

Congress has been able to be generous to NASA for the past several years because Congress and the Obama White House agreed to relax spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  The last agreement relaxed the caps through FY2017.  They return for FY2018.  Whether the Trump Administration and Congress will agree to relax them -- or repeal the law entirely -- remains to be seen.   President Trump asserted in his FY2018 budget blueprint that he had repealed the BCA for defense spending.  He cannot repeal a law; Congress must do that.  In any case, "repealing" only the limits for defense spending while keeping them for non-defense spending (like NASA) would certainly encounter strong resistance in Congress, especially from Democrats.

The point is that the largely happy outcome for NASA in FY2017 may not be a bellwether for FY2018 or future years.  NASA clearly has strong support in Congress, especially from the powerful chairmen of the House and Senate CJS subcommittees -- Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) -- but NASA is just one small part of federal spending, which is deeply affected by debates over tax reform and deficit reduction.  Anything can happen.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the bill and explanatory statement did not provide details on funding under the Exploration account.  A table in the explanatory statement does specify the following:  Orion, $1.35 billion; SLS, $2.15 billion; Exploration Ground Systems, $429 million, and Exploration R&D, $395 million.

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

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2017 (Updated: 30-Apr-2017 02:15 PM)

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

During the Week

SpaceX scrubbed its launch of a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite (NROL-76) at the last minute this morning.  They will try again tomorrow (Monday) morning at 7:00 am ET at NASA Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39-A.  Today's problem was a "sensor issue" apparently in the first stage.  This is SpaceX's first launch for NRO.  The nature of the satellite is classified, of course.  SpaceX provided a webcast today, so probably will tomorrow as well.

In Washington, it is STILL Groundhog Day.  Congress did not complete action on FY2017 appropriations last week.  Instead, it passed another extension of the Continuing Resolution (CR) that has been funding the government since October 1.  This is just a one-week extension, to this Friday, May 5.  They appeared to be fairly close to agreement at the end of last week after the White House backed away from its insistence that funding be included in the FY2017 bill for the border wall with Mexico, but Democrats continue to worry about "poison pill" provisions the Republicans may be planning.  No bill has been introduced yet, so the actual text is not available for perusal.  The House plans to be in recess on Friday (and all of the following week), so they have four days to work everything out -- or pass another extension.  The President plans to send his complete FY2018 budget request to Congress on May 15 (he sent over a "blueprint" in March, but with few details), so it would be nice if they could finish FY2017 before then.

We still don't know very much about what the President's plans are for space.  In the meantime, the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are holding a symposium on Tuesday to offer their views.  In 2009, ASEB and SSB published the report America's Future in Space: Aligning the Civil Space Program with National Needs to provide advice to that new President, Barack Obama.  The study committee that wrote the report was chaired by Gen. Lester Lyles (Ret.) who went on to become chair of ASEB and now chairs the NASA Advisory Council.   He will recap the key points of his 2009 study as a lead in to Tuesday's discussion on "America's Future in Civil Space."   Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot, other NASA officials, and distinguished members of the space science, engineering and policy communities will be there.  Registration for in-person attendance has closed because all the seats are taken, but the event will be webcast. 

ASEB itself is meeting tomorrow (Monday) and, among other things, will celebrate its 50th anniversary.  Happy Birthday, ASEB!  SSB will meet Wednesday and Thursday.  SSB's committee performing the mid-term review of the planetary science Decadal Survey is meeting Thursday and Friday.   Some sessions of all of those meetings are closed, but many are open.

An interesting symposium will be held in one of the Senate meeting rooms tomorrow (Monday) morning on Ultra Low Cost Access to Space (ULCATS), a topic on which Air University recently published a report.   It features an impressive list of speakers, including Newt Gingrich and Bob Walker, representatives from Blue Origin, SpaceX, Stratolaunch, and United Launch Alliance, plus high ranking defense department officials and some of the authors of the report.  We've inquired as to whether there will be a livestream or archived audio- or video-cast and will add that information to our calendar item once we get an answer.

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

Monday, May 1

Tuesday, May 2

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 2-3

Wednesday, May 3

Wednesday-Thursday, May 3-4

Thursday-Friday, May 4-5

Friday-Saturday, May 5-6

NASA Agrees With GAO -- First SLS/Orion Mission Will Slip to 2019

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2017 (Updated: 27-Apr-2017 08:41 PM)

In response to a report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released today, the head of NASA's human exploration program agreed with GAO's conclusion that Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), the first flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew capsule, will slip from late 2018 into 2019.  GAO's report warned that a delay was likely.  NASA's written response, published as an appendix, agrees and states that the agency is in the process of setting "a new target in 2019."

The GAO audit of SLS, Orion and associated Exploration Ground Systems (EGS), prepared for the chairs of the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that fund NASA, was conducted from July 2016 to April 2017.  GAO found that although the programs were making progress, "schedule pressure is escalating as technical challenges continue to cause schedule delays" while each has little cost or schedule reserve remaining.  It called the existing launch readiness date of November 2018 "precarious."

The GAO report aligns with a recent report from NASA's Office of Inspector General that also expressed concern about cost and schedule delays.

GAO made two recommendations to NASA: as part of the FY2018 budget process, confirm whether the existing EM-1 schedule is achievable and, if not, propose a new schedule.

GAO provides drafts of its reports to whatever agency is being audited and allows the agency to respond in writing, with the response published as part of the report.  NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, replied to this report on April 12, 2017. 

Gerstenmaier said NASA agrees "that maintaining a November 2018 launch readiness date is not in the best interest of the program, and we are in the process of establishing a new target date in 2019." 

He added that some of the concerns raised by GAO "are no longer concerns, and new ones have appeared. Caution should be used in referencing the report on the specific technical issues, but the overall conclusions are valid."

He concurred with GAO's two recommendations and said that NASA would complete its analysis of a new launch readiness date by September 30, 2017.  He noted that NASA is assessing the EM-1 schedule with regard to the potential for putting crew on EM-1 (rather than waiting for EM-2 as has been planned until now); impacts of recent tornado damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, LA where the SLS core stage is being developed; and the FY2018 budget process.

Congress directed NASA to develop SLS and a "mutli-purpose crew vehicle" (MPCV) in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  

President Obama had just cancelled the George W. Bush administration's Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and someday go to Mars.  Obama proposed investing in "game-changing" propulsion technologies for 5 years before deciding on what new launch vehicle to build for future human exploration.  Under Bush, NASA had been developing the Ares I and Ares V rockets and the Orion crew spacecraft.  Obama's focus was on extending the International Space Station (ISS) from 2015 to 2020, but he adopted Bush's decision to terminate the space shuttle as soon as ISS construction was completed and therefore called for creating public-private partnerships to develop commercial systems to take crews back and forth.  The "commercial crew" idea built on the "commercial cargo" program initiated in the Bush Administration that saw development of the SpaceX Falcon 9/Dragon and Orbital ATK Antares/Cygnus systems in use today.  (SpaceX and Boeing are currently working on commercial crew systems, but those schedules also have been delayed.)

Congress, however, had passed two laws, the 2005 and 2008 NASA authorization acts, on a bipartisan basis endorsing the Constellation program.  Congressional Republicans and Democrats alike were furious at Obama's decision to cancel Constellation with no replacement program that would, for example, absorb workers laid off from the space shuttle.   Obama quickly decided to give a speech a Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 where he announced a new human spaceflight destination -- an asteroid by 2025 -- as a steppingstone to Mars, but also nixed plans to send Americans back to the lunar surface.  The asteroid mission evolved into the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), with activities in lunar orbit, but no landings on the surface.  Obama set a goal of putting astronauts in orbit around Mars in the 2030s, but with regard to humans landing on Mars, said only that he expected it within his lifetime.

After months of fractious debate between the White House and Congress, agreement was reached on the 2010 NASA authorization act.  It took a middle ground, allowing Obama to proceed with the commercial crew initiative for ISS, but also directing NASA to build SLS and an MPCV for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit. 

Hence began the SLS program, with the expected first launch, EM-1, with an uncrewed Orion spacecraft in 2017.  The first launch with a crew, EM-2, was expected in August 2021.

By 2015, those dates had slipped to late 2018 for EM-1 and April 2023 for EM-2.  SLS supporters in Congress, including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, pushed to keep the EM-2 launch date in 2021.  SLS is managed by Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.  Congress added money to the amounts requested by the Obama Administration for the past several years to keep SLS on schedule.  NASA officials continually assert that although 2023 is the EM-2 date to which they are officially committed, August 2021 is an "internal" planning date.

Today's GAO report does not address the EM-2 schedule, but if EM-1 slips to 2019, it seems unlikely that EM-2 could take place as early as 2021.  Among other things, EM-2 will use a different upper stage that is taller than the one for EM-1 and thus requires changes to ground facilities.  Gerstenmaier said in February that it will take 33 months to make those changes.

Meanwhile, the Trump Administration wants to terminate ARM, but asked NASA to determine the feasibility of putting a crew on EM-1 instead of waiting for EM-2 as has been planned all along.  Acting NASA Chief Scientist Gale Allen said last week that the EM-1 crew feasibility study is completed and the agency is awaiting a "go forward plan."

In short, the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program continues to be uncertain, despite President Trump's assertion last week that he wants Americans to get to Mars sooner than currently planned.


Events of Interest

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