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NASA Remembers Fallen Astronauts

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Jan-2017 (Updated: 01-Feb-2017 12:30 AM)

NASA observed its annual Day of Remembrance today with a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.  Each year about this time, NASA honors astronauts who died in connection with spaceflights, particularly the Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger and space shuttle Columbia crews who died on January 27, 1967, January 28, 1986, and February 1, 2003 respectively.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, other NASA officials, and the astronauts' families and friends participated in today's ceremony.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot stands with June Scobee Rogers, widow of Challenger commander Dick Scobee, and an unidentified military officer along with other participants in NASA's 2017 Day of Remembrance at Arlington National Cemetery.   Photo credit: NASA

This year is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire and two events were held at Kennedy Space Center last week as a special tribute to the crew.  They died when fire broke out in their Apollo spacecraft during a ground test on January 27, 1967 prior to a scheduled February 21 launch.  Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee died of asphyxiation.  The Apollo capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source.   The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward.  With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time.  Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards. 

The crew of Apollo 1:  Ed White, Gus Grissom, and Roger Chaffee.  Photo credit: NASA

Nineteen years and one day later, on January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after liftoff when a rubber "O-ring" in one of its Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB) failed because of unusually cold temperatures.  The mission was designated STS-51L.  A Presidential Commission chaired by former Secretary of State William Rogers found that the O-ring failure was the technical cause of the tragedy, but flawed decision-making was a contributing cause:  "The decision to launch the Challenger was flawed. Those who made that decision were unaware of the recent history of problems concerning the O-rings and the joint and were unaware of the initial written recommendation of the contractor advising against the launch at temperatures below 53 degrees Fahrenheit and the continuing opposition of the engineers at Thiokol after the management reversed its position. They did not have a clear understanding of Rockwell's concern that it was not safe to launch because of ice on the pad. If the decisionmakers had known all of the facts, it is highly unlikely that they would have decided to launch 51-L on January 28, 1986."

The astronauts who died in the Challenger tragedy were:

  • NASA Commander Dick Scobee
  • NASA Pilot Mike Smith
  • NASA Mission Specialist Judy Resnik
  • NASA Mission Specialist Ellison Onizuka
  • NASA Mission Specialist Ron McNair
  • Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis (from Hughes Aircraft)
  • "Teacher in Space" Christa McAuliffe

Space Shuttle Challenger crew, left to right:  front row Mike Smith, Dick Scobee and Ron McNair; back row Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Greg Jarvis and Judy Resnik.  Photo credit:  NASA

Almost exactly 14 years after Challenger, on February 1, 2003, the crew of the space shuttle Columbia was killed during their return to Earth after a 16-day science mission designated STS-107.  Columbia disintegrated when the superheated gases encountered during reentry into Earth's atmosphere entered one of its wings through a hole punctured by a piece of foam that fell from the shuttle's External Tank during launch. The extreme heat - a normal part of reentry - caused the wing to fail structurally, creating aerodynamic forces that led to the disintegration of the orbiter. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB), chaired by Adm. Harold Gehman (Ret.), concluded that the tragedy was caused by both technical and organizational failures.  Changes were made and the space shuttle returned to flight in 2005, but foam continued to fall from the External Tank during subsequent launches.  Safety was one of the factors in the George W. Bush Administration's decision to terminate the shuttle program once construction of the International Space Station was completed.  The Obama Administration adopted the Bush Administration's position and the shuttle program ended in July 2011.

The astronauts who died in the Columbia tragedy were:

  • NASA Commander Rick Husband
  • NASA Pilot William McCool
  • NASA Payload Commander Michael Anderson
  • NASA Mission Specialist David Brown
  • NASA Mission Specialist Kalpana Chawla
  • NASA Mission Specialist Laurel Clark
  • Israeli Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon

Space Shuttle Columbia crew:  from left -  David Brown (NASA), Rick Husband (NASA), Laurel Clark (NASA), Kalpana Chawla (NASA), Michael Anderson (NASA), William McCool (NASA), Ilan Ramon (Israeli Air Force). Photo credit: NASA.


Smith, Babin Urge Passage of NASA Transition Authorization Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jan-2017 (Updated: 31-Jan-2017 12:20 AM)

Two top Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee are urging quick passage of the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act.  As we reported yesterday, a new draft is circulating right now and could see action in the Senate this week.

House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chaired the Space Subcommittee in the last Congress and is expected to do so again, both spoke at a Space Transportation Association (STA) event this evening.  Smith said he hoped for action in the Senate in the next few days.

The Senate passed the 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act in the closing days of the 114th Congress, but the House had already completed its legislative business for the year so the bill did not clear Congress.  A slightly revised version is now being readied and Smith and Babin both spoke optimistically about its passage in order to achieve one of its key themes -- continuity.   Congressional Republicans and Democrats have stressed the need to avoid any major disruptions to NASA programs as happened early in President Obama's administration.  Obama cancelled President George W. Bush's Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and replaced it with a program to send humans to orbit Mars by the 2030s, with the Asteroid Redirect Mission in between. Obama also shifted NASA out of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), instead using public-private partnerships to develop "commercial crew" capabilities.  NASA will buy services from companies rather than building and owning its own system.  Boeing and SpaceX were chosen to develop the commercial crew systems, which have not yet flown.  NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011.  It relies on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS.

The most recent NASA authorization act became law in 2010.  Its funding recommendations covered only three years, through FY2013, although its policy provisions remain in force.  The new draft NASA Transition Authorization Act would recommend funding only for FY2017, which is already in progress, but provides policy guidance for most of NASA's programs.  Policy provisions typically do not expire.

Smith and Babin did not commit to when the House would take up a Senate-passed bill, but made clear that they hope for quick action, followed by a 2018 NASA authorization act.

Smith also said that the committee's first space-related hearing would take place in mid-February and would be a "panoramic view" of NASA's past, present and future to acquaint the many new members of the committee with NASA's activities.  Republican members of the committee have been named, but not the Democrats, and subcommittee assignments are pending.   Smith said there would be many space hearings this year, perhaps more than the 19 held last year.

No news was offered on when a new NASA Administrator might be nominated.  Smith said only that he expected it "in coming weeks."  Babin added that although he and Smith do not know any details of what President Trump's budget request for NASA will be, he is "confident" they all are on the same page -- providing NASA with appropriate funding because "a great nation needs a robust, reliable, executable and rational space exploration program and I think that our President Trump realizes this and knows it."

What's Happening in Space Policy January 30 - February 3, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jan-2017 (Updated: 29-Jan-2017 09:59 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 30 - February 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

Tuesday is NASA's official Day of Remembrance, honoring the crews of Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger, space shuttle Columbia and other astronauts who lost their lives in connection with spaceflight.  Some events have already taken place, including two at Kennedy Space Center last week to specially honor the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967.  Nineteen years and a day later, on January 28, 1986, Challenger's 7-person crew died 73 seconds after launch when an O-ring on a solid rocket booster failed.  Seventeen years and four days after that, on February 1, 2003, Columbia's 7-person crew died during their descent to Earth after a 16-day mission when superheated gases entered a hole in Columbia's wing punctured by a piece of foam that fell from the shuttle's External Tank during launch.  NASA has a special Day of Remembrance webpage honoring all of them.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot will lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday and other events will take place at various NASA centers around the country.

In Congress this week, a new version of the NASA Transition Authorization Act is being readied for potential consideration by the Senate.  The Senate passed a 2016 bill in the closing days of the 114th Congress, unfortunately after the House already had completed its legislative business so the bill did not clear Congress.   Members and staff have kept working on it and a 2017 version with some modifications is being circulated.  According to a draft we've seen, there are three especially interesting changes.  One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) "safely, reliably, and affordably."  Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System.  The third is a finding that NASA has not demonstrated to Congress that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is commensurate with its benefits, a stronger statement than what was in the 2016 bill.  Discussions are still ongoing, apparently, about potential language regarding best practices for using Space Act Agreements.  The course of legislation is rarely smooth, so there's no guarantee the bill will be introduced and considered this week, but we hear that's the plan.

Also on the Senate side, a vote is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:20 pm ET on the nomination of Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation.  A vote on Wilbur Ross's nomination to be Secretary of Commerce has not been formally scheduled, but is expected this week.

Subject to a rule being granted, the House will take up a completely different piece of legislation this week.  A still unnumbered House Joint Resolution (H. J. Res.) would disapprove of a final rule issued by DOD, NASA and the General Services Administration (GSA) on August 25, 2016 that went into effect on October 25, 2016 to implement Executive Order 13673 regarding Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces.  The resolution is posted on the House Rules Committee's website and states that Congress disapproves of 81 Fed. Reg. 58562 to improve contractor compliance with labor laws.  The House Rules Committee will take it up on Tuesday.  Assuming the rule is granted, the House is scheduled to vote on it on Thursday.

Off the Hill, the American Physical Society is holding its "April Meeting" in January.  It began yesterday and runs through January 31.  Of particular note is a presentation by the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, on Tuesday.  He will talk about "Science and Technology Cooperation as an Effective Bridge for Strengthening Relations Between Russia and the US."   The conference is not focused on space and Kislyak's talk may be quite broad about S&T cooperation, but it would be surprising if the ISS doesn't get mentioned.

Way, way, way off the Hill -- in Vienna, Austria -- the Science and Technology Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) holds its annual two-week meeting beginning tomorrow. 

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, January 30

Monday-Tuesday, January 30-31 (actually began on January 28)

Monday, January 30 - Friday, February 10

Tuesday, January 31

  • NASA Day of Remembrance, wreath-laying at Arlington National Cemetery, 11:00 am ET, events also at other locations and times

Thursday, February 2

Friday, February 3

Johnson Reintroduces Apollo 1 Memorial Legislation as NASA Honors the Crew

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jan-2017 (Updated: 27-Jan-2017 02:57 PM)

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed the first Apollo crew -- Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee.  NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) held special tributes to the Apollo 1 crew yesterday and today as part of NASA's annual Day of Remembrance activities, which honor the Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger and space shuttle Columbia crews and other fallen astronauts.  On Tuesday, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot will lay a wreath at Arlington Cemetery near memorials to the Challenger and Columbia crews, but there is no memorial there for Apollo 1.  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) is reintroducing legislation today to remedy that situation.

On January 27, 1967, the United States suffered its first space tragedy when Grissom, White, and Chaffee died of asphyxiation after fire broke out in their Apollo Command Module during a test prior to a planned February 21 launch.  The capsule was filled with 100 percent oxygen at 16.7 pounds per square inch (psi) pressure. The cause of the fire is thought to have been a spark from an electrical wire although the investigation could not conclusively identify the ignition source.   The capsule had been designed for the hatch to swing inward.  With the pressure inside the capsule greater than that outside, it was impossible for the crew to open it quickly and with fire spreading explosively in 100 percent oxygen, there was little time.  Many changes were made to the design of the Apollo capsule and to test procedures afterwards.

Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.  Photo credit: NASA

Tributes were paid at the two KSC events to the Apollo 1 crew and to the support personnel who were on the Launch Pad 34 gantry just outside the spacecraft who tried to rescue them.  Among the speakers were legendary astronauts Mike Collins (Gemini 10, Apollo 11) and Tom Stafford (Gemini 6, Gemini 9, Apollo 10, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project) and Chaffee's daughter, Sheryl Chaffee, who recently retired after her own career at KSC.

Collins spoke at yesterday's ceremony, which was dedicated to all the astronauts honored at the Astronaut Memorial Foundation's Space Mirror, and Stafford spoke today at the opening of an exhibit at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Complex dedicated to the Apollo 1 crew.   Both men knew Grissom, White and Chaffee quite well from the astronaut corps and in some cases from much earlier friendships (Collins and White were students at West Point together, for example).  Stafford was selected in the second group of astronauts in 1962 and Collins in the third group in 1963.   Grissom was one of the original "Mercury 7 astronauts" selected in 1959.  White joined the astronaut corps in 1962 and Chaffee in 1963 along with Collins.

Collins and Stafford both stressed that although their friends and colleagues lost their lives, the lessons learned from the Apollo 1 tragedy made the Apollo spacecraft safer and led to the success of the Apollo program overall.  If the design deficiencies of the Apollo spacecraft had not been discovered on the ground, such a fire could have occurred while a crew was in space and NASA might never have learned why, leading to a greater disruption in the space program.  Collins said:  "Without Apollo 1 and the lessons learned from it in all probability such a fire would have taken place later, in flight, and not only the crew, but the entire spacecraft, would have been lost. NASA, with no machinery to examine could only guess at the causes and how to prevent still another occurrence. Yes, Apollo 1 did cause three deaths, but I believe it saved more than three later."   Stafford echoed those sentiments.

Sheryl Chaffee movingly recounted what it was like as an 8-year old learning of her father's death and how it impacted her life and led to having her own 33-year career at KSC.  But she also explained how she felt the sacrifices of the Apollo 1 crew were not adequately acknowledged by NASA for many years.  In the days before January 28,1987, the 1-year anniversary of the space shuttle Challenger tragedy, she said she noticed that someone had placed flowers in the lobby of the headquarters building in their memory, but there were none to honor the Apollo 1 crew who had lost their lives almost exactly 20 years earlier.  "I felt no one remembered.  So I took that into my own hands.  I ordered flowers in honor of Apollo 1 and had them placed in the headquarters lobby next to the Challenger flowers. At that moment it became my mission to make sure we never forget the Apollo 1 crew and all our other fallen astronauts."

Sheryl Chaffee. daughter of Apollo 1 astronaut Roger Chaffee, speaking at NASA Kennedy Space Center Day of Remembrance event, January 26, 2017.  Screengrab from NASA TV.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson is also trying to ensure that the Apollo 1 crew is not forgotten.  Today she is reintroducing a bill from the last Congress to create a memorial at Arlington National Cemetery for Apollo 1 similar to those for the Challenger and Columbia crews.  Grissom and Chaffee are buried at Arlington; White is buried at West Point.

In a press release, Johnson said that although they were posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, "it is surprising that we do not have a memorial to honor the lives of the crew of Apollo 1 as was done for the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews.  This bill would redress that unfortunate omission."

The bill is identical to last year's legislation, H.R. 6147, according to a Johnson spokeswoman.  It would direct the Secretary of the Army to construct a memorial marker to the Apollo 1 crew at an "appropriate place" in the cemetery and allocate $500,000 of money appropriated to the Army for operations and maintenance in FY2017 for that purpose.  It also would allow the Administrator of NASA to accept donations for the memorial and transfer the money to the Army.  The Army oversees Arlington Cemetery.

Space Shuttle Challenger was destroyed 73 seconds after liftoff on January 28, 1986, killing all aboard:  NASA astronauts Dick Scobee, Mike Smith, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, and Ron McNair; Payload Specialist Greg Jarvis from Hughes Space and Communications; and Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe.  An O-ring in one of the shuttle's two solid rocket boosters failed due to unusually low temperatures at the launch site.

Space Shuttle Challenger memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  Photo credit:  Arlington National Cemetery website.

Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated during its descent from orbit on February 1, 2003 after a 16-day science mission, killing all aboard: NASA astronauts Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, David Brown,  Kalpana Chawla, and Laurel Blair Salton Clark; and  Payload Specialist Ilan Ramon of the Israeli Air Force.  Foam falling from the shuttle's External Tank during launch had punctured a hole in Columbia's wing, allowing the superheated gases encountered during atmospheric reentry to enter and deform the wing.  Aerodynamic forces tore the shuttle apart.

Space Shuttle Columbia memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.  Photo credit:  Arlington National Cemetery website.

Former NOAA Administrator, Astronaut Sullivan to Write Book on Satellite Servicing

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jan-2017 (Updated: 26-Jan-2017 06:16 PM)

Former NOAA Administrator and NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan has been selected by the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) as the 2017 Charles A. Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History.   She will spend her one year in that position writing a book about satellite servicing as a philosophy and practice.  As a space shuttle astronaut, she not only was the first American woman to conduct a spacewalk, but was on the shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, the poster child of satellite servicing.

Sullivan resigned as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of NOAA on January 20 at the end of the Obama Administration.  An oceanographer by training, she has a long career in aerospace including her years as a NASA astronaut (1978-1993), president and CEO of the interactive science center COSI Columbus (Ohio), Director of Ohio State's Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education, and an earlier stint at NOAA as chief scientist.  

Kathy Sullivan.   Photo Credit:  NOAA

The Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History is a competitive one-year fellowship for senior scholars who are writing or plan to write books in aerospace history.  According to the NASM press release, Sullivan's book on satellite servicing will discuss its "philosophy and practice, with attention to the creation of design features, tools, procedures, training, tests and evaluation."

Sullivan flew on three space shuttle missions:  STS 41-G in 1984 when she became the first American woman to make a spacewalk, just months after Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman ever to do it; STS-31 in 1990 that deployed Hubble; and STS-45 in 1992, the first Spacelab mission devoted to studying planet Earth.

Hubble is renowned today for its spectacular images of the universe and groundbreaking science.  It was the first space telescope designed to be serviced by astronauts, which turned out to be a really good thing because its mirror was deformed.  Astronauts on the first servicing mission essentially fitted the telescope with a special pair of glasses that made it see properly.  Over the course of four more servicing missions, the instruments and major components, including the solar arrays, were replaced.  Launched almost 27 years ago, it is still returning valuable data because of its ability to be serviced.

Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), however, is not designed to be serviced and debate continues about whether it should have been and whether future space telescopes should be.  NASA has been working on developing robotic satellite servicing technology through the RESTORE-L program at Goddard Space Flight Center for more than a decade and recently elevated those efforts from an "office" to a "division."   NASA efforts are aimed at servicing satellites in low Earth orbit.  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) technology development program.   Orbital ATK and Space Systems Loral also are working on satellite servicing technologies.

The idea has many skeptics in terms of whether it could ever become a commercially viable enterprise and others question whether the government is competing with the private sector in developing the technologies, so there is much for Sullivan's book to elucidate.

Ross Promises Support for NOAA Weather and Climate Research, Sharing Data With Public - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Jan-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 07:35 PM)

Secretary of Commerce-designate Wilbur Ross has assured Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) that he supports weather and climate research, monitoring and reporting at the Department of Commerce, of which NOAA is a part, and providing that data to the public. Nelson is the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which approved Ross's nomination today. [UPDATE, February 27, 2017:  Ross was confirmed by the Senate today by a vote of 72-27.]

Nelson wrote to Ross on January 19 asking for a "clear commitment" to supporting climate research and monitoring programs at the Department if Ross is confirmed.  Nelson added that "I fully expect that you will safeguard the department's scientists from political interference, intimidation and censorship."

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL).  Photo credit:  Nelson website.

Ross replied on January 23 in the affirmative.  Asking to set aside questions of why sea levels and ocean temperatures are changing and instead focus for now on addressing the impacts of those changes, Ross said the Department "should continue to research, monitor and report weather and climate information.... [I]f confirmed, one of my first orders of business will be to begin meeting with NOAA scientists to become fully briefed on what they are seeing with respect to weather and climate information and how the Department can ensure that the National Weather Service continues to make advances to improve the timeliness and accuracy of weather forecasting." 

Wilbur Ross at his Senate Commerce Committee Confirmation Hearing, January 18, 2017.  Screengrab from committee webcast.

Referencing his testimony at his confirmation hearing last week, Ross continued: "I believe science should be left to scientists."   He also said he wanted to provide the public "with as much factual and accurate data as we have available.  It is public tax dollars that support the Department's scientific research, and barring some national security concern, I see no valid reason to keep peer reviewed research from the public.  To be clear, by peer review I mean scientific review and not a political filter."

Ross's comments come against a backdrop of growing concern in the scientific community that the Trump Administration is trying to prevent the public release of scientific data from federal agencies including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service since the inauguration. The Associated Press (AP) reported on what it called the White House "communications clampdown" in the executive branch.  The AP quoted a Trump transition official, Doug Ericksen, at EPA as saying it is temporary while they are "trying to get a handle on everything," but there is concern about what it portends.   AP went on to quote Jeff Ruch from the advocacy group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility as saying that what the Trump Administration is doing goes beyond prior presidential transitions and "We're watching the dark cloud of Mordor extend over federal service," in reference to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

At its annual meeting in Seattle today, the American Meteorological Society (AMS) reaffirmed its official statement on Freedom of Scientific Expression.  "Already the new Administration is restraining communications from government agencies related to the weather, water, and climate community.  In several instances in recent years, government agencies and elected officials of both major political parties have attempted to obstruct or inhibit the work of scientists," AMS said in a press release, which prompted the Society to adopt its statement originally in 2012 and readopt it today without modification.

Ross's nomination to be Secretary of Commerce was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee this morning by voice vote, along with that for Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation.  There was no dissent.  The committee also approved the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) as amended, and the Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act (H.R. 321), and 16 other bills.

Trump Picks Heather Wilson as Next Secretary of the Air Force

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jan-2017 (Updated: 23-Jan-2017 11:40 PM)

The White House announced today that President Trump will nominate former Rep. Heather Wilson to serve as Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF).  Wilson represented the 1st district of New Mexico from 1998-2009 and currently is President of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology.  She will succeed Deborah Lee James who was SecAF during most of President Obama's second term.

Wilson graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the Air Force Academy in 1982, then earned Masters and doctoral degrees (D.Phil) in international relations as a Rhodes Scholar at England's Oxford University.   After service in Europe as an Air Force Officer (Captain), she joined President George H.W. Bush's National Security Council staff in 1989.  In 1991, she left government service and founded Keystone International in Albuquerque, NM.  In 1995, she was appointed by the Governor of New Mexico to be Cabinet Secretary for Children, Youth and Families.

She was elected to Congress in 1998 and served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2008, she decided to run for Senate to succeed Sen. Pete Dominici, but lost in the primary.  She ran again for the Senate in 2012 to succeed Sen. Jeff Bingaman, but lost in the general election.

Heather Wilson.  Photo Credit:  South Dakota School of Mines & Technology website.

Wilson has been President of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, SD since 2013.  Among its activities, the School has a close relationship with the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, SD where research on neutrinos, dark matter and subatomic particles is conducted.  She is the first female President of the School.

James resigned as SecAF at noon on January 20 when the Obama Administration ended.  Under Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow became Acting SecAF at that point and will remain in that position until Wilson is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in.   Disbrow is a retired Air Force Reserve Colonel with more than 30 years of national security experience including serving as a senior systems engineer at the National Reconnaissance Office.

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow.  Photo Credit:  Air Force website.


What's Happening in Space Policy January 22-27, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Jan-2017 (Updated: 22-Jan-2017 06:28 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of January 22-27, 2017 and any insight we offer about them.  The House will be in session for the first part of the week (Monday-Wednesday); the Senate is scheduled to be in session all week.  [Updated to add newly scheduled Senate Commerce Committee votes on Chao and Ross nominations.]

During the Week

"The week" kicks off today with the annual meeting of the American Meteorological Society (AMS), which runs through Thursday in Seattle.  AMS is one of the places where earth scientists gather to reveal new discoveries, discuss new projects, and debate related issues.  Satellites are one method of obtaining earth science data, of course, so NASA and NOAA are major participants. 

The AMS meeting includes the 14th Conference on Space Weather, a topic that will also be debated in Congress this week. The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will mark up the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) on Tuesday.   It was originally introduced in the 114th Congress, but did not pass and was reintroduced last week.  In addition, the National Weather Service, on behalf of the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), is releasing two space weather draft documents for public comment in the Federal Register that is dated January 23 (tomorrow), but was emailed on Friday.  One is draft Phase I Space Weather Benchmarks and the other is a white paper on improving space weather research to operations (R2O) and operations to research (O2R).  Comments are due in March.

Congress has not completed action on the FY2017 budget and there is no pending FY2018 request, but that doesn't mean the debate can't begin.  Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) released his own plan for defense spending for FY2018-2022 last week and will hold a hearing on it Tuesday.   CSIS is holding its own defense budget discussion tomorrow.  Both events will be webcast.

DOD is one of only two government agencies with new Senate-confirmed leaders today.  Gen. James Mattis (USMC, Ret.) was confirmed and sworn in as Secretary of Defense on Friday.  (The other is Secretary of Homeland Security Gen. John Kelly, USMC, Ret.)   More confirmation votes are expected this week.   Senate Republicans had hoped to approve at least one other nominee on Friday (for CIA Director), but Democrats objected there had been insufficient time to review his and other nominees' vetting forms and debate their qualifications for the jobs. 

As originally announced, the Senate Commerce Committee markup scheduled for Tuesday did not include votes on the nominees under its jurisdiction -- Elaine Chao as Secretary of Transportation and Wilbur Ross as Secretary of Commerce.  On Sunday afternoon, however, the committee added those nominations to the list of items that will be considered.  The markup is at 10:00 am in 253 Russell.  In addition to the space weather bill and these nominations, the committee will also mark up the INSPIRE Women Act, H.R. 321, that passed the House on January 10.

No announcements have been made yet about who will be the new NASA Administrator.  Robert Lightfoot is Acting Administrator.   As expected, Erik Noble has been named White House advisor for NASA and Greg Autry is the White House liaison.  Noble is an atmospheric scientist who once worked for NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, but more recently was a political data analyst for the Trump campaign.   Autry most recently was an assistant professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the University of Southern Califlornia.  No word on a new NOAA Administrator either.  Benjamin Friedman is Acting Administrator.

Friday is the 50th anniversary of the January 27, 1967 Apollo 1 (or Apollo 204) tragedy that killed astronauts Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chafee.  Legislation introduced in the last Congress by Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) would have established a memorial for them at Arlington National Cemetery similar to those for the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia crews.  It did not clear the 114th Congress, however, and it does not appear to have been reintroduced so far this year.   NASA's Kennedy Space Center will hold an event on Thursday to honor them and other fallen astronauts as part of NASA's annual "remembrance" activities. The actual Day of Remembrance will be on January 31; details TBA.

January 27, 1967 is also the day that the United Nations Outer Space Treaty was opened for signature.  The American Society of International Law, the Secure World Foundation and Georgetown Space Law Society will hold a seminar commemorating that 50th anniversary on Friday at Georgetown Law School.

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

Sunday-Thursday, January 22-26

Monday, January 23

Tuesday, January 24

Tuesday-Wednesday, January 24-25

Wednesday, January 25

Thursday, January 26

Thursday-Friday, January 26-27

Friday, January 27


Note:  This article was updated on Sunday afternoon after the Senate Commerce Committee added the Chao and Ross nominations to the list of items to be considered at Tuesday's markup.

Mattis Confirmed as Secretary of Defense - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Jan-2017 (Updated: 20-Jan-2017 11:20 PM)

General James Mattis (USMC, Ret.) was confirmed by the Senate today as the new Secretary of Defense (SecDef).  The 98-1 vote took place just hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. [UPDATE:  Mattis was sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence shortly after the confirmation vote.]

One of Trump's first acts as President was signing legislation that passed Congress last week allowing Mattis to serve as SecDef even though he retired from military service only 3 years ago.  By law, he must have been retired for at least 7 years.  The bill allowed a waiver to that law.   Former President Obama had indicated that he was willing to sign the bill, but Congress waited until today to present it to the new President for signature.   Such a waiver has been granted only once before, in 1950, allowing Army General George C. Marshall to serve as SecDef.

The one vote against the confirmation was cast by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) because of concerns about maintaining the principle of civilian control of the military.  Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) did not vote.   He himself is a Trump Cabinet nominee (for Attorney General).  Senate Democrats had demanded that he recuse himself from voting on the nominations of other Cabinet nominees since it would be a conflict of interest and Politico reported that it would be unprecedented for a sitting Senator to do so.  

Mattis, 66, already has had a distinguished military career capped by serving from 2010-2013 as Commander of Central Command, which is responsible for U.S. military operations in the Middle East, Northeast Africa and Central Asia.  He was NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (2007-2009) and, concurrently, commander of U.S. Joint Forces Command (2007-2010).   After his retirement, he served on a number of boards, including General Dynamics, and was a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

Mattis's views on space activities are not well known.  He was not asked any questions about national security space programs during his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) last week.  SASC sent him a 56-page set of questions in advance of the hearing.  The questions and his answers are posted on the SASC website.  Only four specifically concerned space activities.  The questions and answers, verbatim, are as follows:


What do you perceive as the threats to our national security space satellites?

The threat to our satellite capabilities is real and growing. Both China and Russia have developed and tested a variety of anti-satellite weapons that can destroy or disable satellites.

Briefly describe what policy objectives we should be seeking to achieve and the strategy you think is necessary to address these threats.

We must ensure the availability, security, and resiliency of our assets at all times and through all phases of conflict.

Do you support the development of offensive space control capabilities to counter those threats?

Offensive space control capabilities should be considered to ensure survivable and resilient space operations necessary for the execution of war plans. If confirmed, I will examine the feasibility of integrating such considerations into existing national security policy.

The Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the use of Russian rocket engines after December 31, 2022. Are you committed to ending our dependence on the use of Russian rocket engines as soon as possible, perhaps even before December 31, 2022?

If confirmed, I will comply with the law, and work in consultation with the Congress to meet or exceed any deadline requirements it imposes.

McCain Proposes Dramatic Spending Boost for Defense, Including Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Jan-2017 (Updated: 17-Jan-2017 11:23 PM)

Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) has released a blueprint for a dramatic boost in defense spending.   His plan, Restoring American Power, calls for repealing the law that created sequestration and adding $430 billion for defense spending over 5 years above the amounts proposed by President Obama.  He believes space programs "must be a priority" for some of that additional funding.

McCain's plan covers defense spending at the Department of Defense as well as nuclear weapons programs at the Department of Energy (DOE).

He casts blame widely for inadequate defense budgets and "abuse" of the off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations account.  Republicans and Democrats, the White House and Congress are all at fault for the current situation in his view.  The purpose of his plan is to fix it, beginning with repeal of the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) that set budget caps for discretionary spending that he sees as the root of the problem.  Recounting how the BCA caps and the Damoclean sword of sequestration to enforce them came to exist -- after Congress could not agree on another method for reining in the federal deficit -- he states that the "havoc ... wreaked on each of the military services is still being felt to this day." Repealing the BCA and increasing defense spending "must be" the "highest priority for the 115th Congress."

He proposes a $430 billion increase over 5 years above the levels in President Obama's FY2017 budget request (including projections for future years), which he acknowledged was itself $100 billion above the BCA caps. Congress has not completed action on that request.  DOD, DOE and other departments and agencies that are part of discretionary spending are currently funded by a Continuing Resolution through April 28.

The additional funds he is proposing are for two broad priorities:  modernization and regaining capacity.  Regarding national security space activities, McCain asserts that DOD "has finally awoken to the reality that we must invest in the next generation of space capabilities....Over the next five years, space must be a priority for additional funding to ensure that the United States maintains its space superiority and has the capabilities and capacity to deter and defend our critical space assets in future conflicts."

He also sees the need for investing in a "space-based sensor architecture" for missile defense as a potential alternative to "costly ground-based radars."   Overall, for missile defense he advocates development of "boost phase defense programs, directed energy, hypervelocity projectiles, high-power microwaves, battle management using learning machines, and space-based capabilities."

The report includes several tables outlining where McCain wants to spend the additional funds he proposes for FY2018-2022.  The figures are increases above President Obama's FY2017 request, but the breakdown does not follow the format of that request so it is not possible to make apples-to-apples comparisons. The extract below from a table on page 28 of the report shows the proposed increases for space (as well as cyber and missile defense).

Extract from table on page 28 of SASC Chairman John McCain's January 2017 report "Restoring American Power."  That report does not say so, but the figures likely are shown in thousands, where "$500,000" represents $500 million, for example, which is commonly done in budget charts of this nature.

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