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Senate Committee Approves Modified Space Weather Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 06:27 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee today favorably reported a modified version of the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act, S. 2817.   A revised version of the bill was presented to the committee along with two amendments.

The original bill was introduced last week and quickly scheduled for markup at today's Executive Session. The bipartisan legislation was crafted by Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ), all of whom are members of the committee and its Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee.  Peters is the top Democrat on the subcommittee.

The modified version of the bill and amendments by Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Brian Schatz (D-HI) were adopted without discussion. 

Most of the changes in the revised bill are of a clarifying or perfecting nature.  Perhaps the most significant is explicitly adding the FAA to the list of agencies in the National Space Weather Program (previously it said only FAA's parent, the Department of Transportation). The revised bill also adds a section directing the FAA Administrator to assess the safety implications and vulnerability of the national airspace system to space weather events, assess methods to mitigate them, assess options for incorporating space weather into pilot training, and develop methods to increase the interaction between the aviation community and the space weather community.

Two Pro-NASA House Members Lose Primaries

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 08:11 AM)

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) lost Democratic primary contests yesterday.  Both have been strong NASA supporters holding top Democratic positions on key subcommittees.

Edwards lost to Rep. Chris Van Hollen in a bid to replace Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who is retiring at the end of the year.  In Maryland, politicians can run in only one race, so Edwards and Van Hollen both were precluded from running for their current House seats once they decided to enter the Senate contest.   Edwards once worked for Lockheed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.  She is the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee where she is an enthusiastic NASA supporter, especially of its plans to send humans to Mars.  She makes no secret of her desire to be one of those to make the trip.

Van Hollen's views on the space program -- civil, military or commercial -- are not well known.  Like Edwards, he represents a district close to Washington, DC, but has been in the House much longer (since 2002) and rose through the Democratic ranks into the House leadership.  He will face Republican Kathy Szeliga in November.   In his victory speech, Van Hollen praised Milkulski and her focus on not only big national issues, but "you never forget the people back home."   That attitude has benefitted NASA, NOAA and associated businesses throughout Mikulski's political career, so if Van Hollen emulates it, that could be good news for those interest groups if he wins.  Maryland is a strongly Democratic state so Van Hollen is thought to have the edge, but whether voters choose him or Szeliga, the Senate system is built largely on seniority and any freshman has modest influence compared to a veteran legislator like Mikulski.  She is the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA (and chaired them when Democrats controlled the Senate).

Fattah was the top Democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee, but had to step down from that position last year when he was indicted on federal corruption charges.  He maintains his innocence and is still a member of the House, but gave up his CJS leadership position (now held by Rep. Mike Honda, D-CA).  Although Fattah's Philadelphia district has little connection to the space program, he was a strong supporter of NASA on the CJS subcommittee.  His loss to Dwight Evans was attributed largely to his indictment, along with four others, in connection to his failed 2007 campaign for Mayor of Philadelphia.

NASA has many supporters on Capitol Hill and the loss of three (Mikulski, Edwards and Fattah) hardly spells doom, but it does add a layer of uncertainty to how the agency will fare in future deliberations over government spending priorities.

Russia Delays First Vostochny Launch - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 06:45 AM)

An automatic system shut down Russia's first launch from the new Vostochny launch site in Siberia last night 90 seconds before the scheduled liftoff of a Soyuz 2.1a rocket.  Russia's space corporation Roscosmos hopes to try again today -- 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (which is April 28, 5:01 am Moscow Time).

Russia's official news agency, TASS, quoted an unnamed space industry official as saying that the automatic system "identified a glitch in one of the instruments of the control system responsible for starting and stopping the engines, for the separation of rocket stages, and for the direction of flight."

The launch had been scheduled for April 26, 2016 at 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (April 27, 5:01 am Moscow Time).

Roscosmos officials stressed that the problem is with the rocket, not the spaceport's infrastructure. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin was at Vostochny for the launch and will remain there today with the expectation that it is a 24-hour delay only.  He will use the time to discuss plans for the second and third phases of development of the new spaceport and construction of the town of Tsiolkovsky.

Note:  This article was updated throughout at 6:30 am EDT April 27.

 

Russia's New Vostochny Launch Site Ready for Action

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 11:18 PM)

Russia plans its first launch from the new Vostochny (Eastern) launch site on Tuesday evening Eastern Daylight Time (Wednesday morning, Moscow Time) according to Russia's Tass news agency.  A Soyuz 2.1a rocket will place three small satellites into orbit if all goes according to plan.

Russia's interest in building a new launch site in Siberia to replace or at least reduce its use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union when Kazakhstan gained its independence.  Russia now leases Baikonur from the Kazakh government for $115 million per year with resulting financial and national security ramifications.  Russia has another launch site, Plesetsk, near the Arctic Circle, for launches to high inclination orbits, but Baikonur is used for everything else, including the human spaceflight program.  In terms of utilization, Plesetsk is comparable to Vandenberg Air Force Base and Baikonur to Cape Canaveral and NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Initially, Russia planned to build a new launch site at Svobodny (51.4°N, 128.1°E), a former intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) base.  A few space launches did take place from there between 1997 and 2006 using Start-1 rockets (converted SS-25 mobile missiles), but it was closed in early 2007.  Instead, a decision was made later that year to build a new state-of-the-art launch site at Vostochny (51.8°N, 128.3°E), not far away, that would accommodate launches of Russia's new Angara launch vehicles in addition to existing rockets like Soyuz.  Construction started four years later, but was plagued with delays and charges of corruption.   The two Angara tests that have taken place so far were launched from Plesetsk.  Anatoly Zak's RussianSpaceWeb.com provides a comprehensive history of Vostochny and Svobodny

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia's aerospace sector, has taken a strong interest in ensuring that Vostochny is completed and regularly tweets (@DRogozin in English; @Rogozin in Russian) about his visits there.  Yesterday he tweeted a photo of the Soyuz rocket on the pad preparing for this week's launch.

Russia's Tass news agency reported on April 19 that although the Soyuz rocket would be ready for launch as early as April 20, Rogozin had said the state commission set April 27 at 5:01 Moscow Time as the launch time.  (Other press reports also cite a potential earlier launch date, but Rogozin presumably is in the best position to know.)  Tass went on to say that Vostochny is "destined to become the first national facility for civilian space launches, ensuring Russia's full-scale access to outer space and reducing the dependence of the Russian space industry on the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan." 

Tass identifies the three satellites aboard the Soyuz rocket as Aist-2D, Mikhailo Lomonosov, and SamSat-218.  SpaceFlightNow.com describes them as follows:  Aist-2D is a 1,170 pound satellite with a hyperspectral imaging camera, innovative P-band radar, and other instruments to study the environment around the spacecraft; SamSat-218 is a student-built (Samara State Aerospace University) satellite about the size of a shoebox with a mission that is both educational and a technology demonstration; and Mikhailo Lomonosov is a 1,000 pound satellite named after an 18th century Russian scientist and writer and namesake of Lomonosov Moscow State University that will study high energy cosmic rays, gamma ray bursts, and Earth's magnetosphere.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy April 25-29, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2016 (Updated: 24-Apr-2016 10:36 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of April 25-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

After many years of delays, Russia says that it is finally ready to conduct the first launch from its new Siberian launch site, Vostochny.  The launch is April 27 at 5:01 am Moscow Time, which is April 26 (Tuesday) 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  (We should note that some press reports cite a potentially earlier launch date, but Russia's official news agency, TASS, reported on April 19 that the launch is set for April 27 at 5:01 Moscow Time, so that is what we use here.)  Russia's Roscosmos space agency/state corporation sometimes webcasts launches.  If we hear of any other live webcasts, we'll add them to our calendar entry.  Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com has comprehensive information about Russia's decision to build a new launch site within Russia's borders to handle many of the launches that now take place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan became an independent country and Russia must lease the facility from the Kazakh government with financial and national security ramifications.  (Russia also has a launch site near the Arctic Circle at Plesetsk for high inclination launches.)

Here in Washington, Congress will be very busy Wednesday morning marking up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (House Armed Services Committee) and the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (Senate Commerce Committee), as well as holding a hearing on DOD's FY2017 budget request (Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee). 

The Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will hold their spring meetings this week.  ASEB meets Monday and Tuesday; SSB Tuesday through Thursday.  The meeting on Tuesday is a joint meeting of both boards.  Unfortunately, we're told there will be no webcast of either Board's meetings, which is a shame because the agendas are chock full of really interesting topics and speakers.  Among them is a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon on the "Future of Low Earth Orbit - Moving Toward a Commercial Market."

Speaking of commercial space, the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meets this week.  Its various working groups meet on Wednesday and the full committee on Thursday.   The agenda was not posted as of this morning, but COMSTAC meetings are always very interesting.

The President of the French space agency, Jean-Yves Le Gall, will speak to the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) on Friday at the University Club.

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

Monday-Tuesday, April 25-26

Tuesday

Tuesday-Thursday, April 26-28

  • Space Studies Board (National Academy of Sciences), Keck Center, 500 5th Street, NW, Washington, DC (April 26 is joint with the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board)

Wednesday, April 27

Wednesday-Thursday, April 27-28

  •  COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington DC

Thursday-Friday, April 28-29

Friday, April 29

NOAA Gets Space Weather Boost from Senate Appropriators

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Apr-2016 (Updated: 23-Apr-2016 03:00 PM)

Two days after three Senators introduced a bill to spur space weather research and forecasting, the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a boost for NOAA's space weather satellite program and endorsed its plans to build two new satellites over the next several years. The action came as part of the committee's markup of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill (S. 2837).

NOAA is responsible for building and operating satellites that monitor Earth's weather and space weather.  Space weather is caused by particles ejected from the Sun that hit Earth's atmosphere and can damage satellites and terrestrial infrastructure such as the electric grid.  NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) have satellites positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point to give advance warning of solar eruptions, but two of the three are quite old.  NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) was launched in 1997 and ESA's Solar and Heliophysics Observatory (SOHO) in 1995.  A newer satellite, the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), was launched last year, but only SOHO has a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that allow NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO to issue forecasts and alerts.

Concern about the potential impacts of space weather has been growing since they were highlighted in a 2008 National Research Council report.  In October 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan.  

Congress seems to be getting the message.  Last year NOAA requested $2.5 million to begin planning for a follow-on to DSCOVR and Congress cut that in half, appropriating just $1.2 million.  By contrast, this year the request is also $2.5 million, but Senate appropriators tripled it to $7.5 million. 

Perhaps more significantly, the committee endorsed NOAA's plan to increase funding sharply in the coming years to pay for two space weather satellites, two launch vehicles, and two sets of sensors (solar wind instruments and compact coronagraphs). The goal is to have one satellite ready to replace DSCOVR at the end of its projected mission life in FY2022.  In its FY2017 budget request, NOAA presented a projected funding profile to accomplish that plan: FY2018, $53.7 million; FY2019, $186.1 million; FY2020, $154.5 million; and FY2021, $81.5 million.  In its report on the CJS bill, the committee directs NOAA "to maintain the multi-year funding profile and schedule" and use the additional money provided for FY2017 "to accelerate the development of advanced technologies and an architecture study for a series of space weather follow-on flight missions" to implement OSTP's strategy and action plan.

The appropriations action came two days after Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO), and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced an authorization bill, S. 2817, to clarify space weather responsibilities and promote research.  That bill, which focuses on policy and does not authorize any funding, is scheduled for mark up by the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (April 27).

Overall, NOAA's satellite programs fared well in the Senate appropriations bill.  See SpacePolicyOnline.com's NOAA budget fact sheet for more details. NOAA's major weather satellite programs -- JPSS, GOES-R, and Polar Follow On (PFO) -- were fully funded.

Not everything was approved, though.  Like last year, the committee rejected NOAA's $10 million request to build the Earth Observation Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW).  NOAA describes it as a risk reduction mission to ensure that it can obtain critical microwave sounding observations in case of a launch or instrument failure on JPSS-1.

The committee also rejected an $8.1 million request to build a new set of COSMIC radio occultation (RO) satellites, although it approved $8.1 million for the associated ground system.  The committee encouraged NOAA to use its commercial weather data pilot program to obtain the needed RO data, although it cut NOAA's $5 million request for the pilot program to $3 million (the same as FY2016).  It also denied a $4.4 million request for the Jason-3 ocean altimetry satellite.  The committee said it supports Jason-3, but now that the satellite is in orbit, funding requests for data analysis and processing should be in a different part of NOAA's budget (the Operations, Research and Facilities account).

The top Democrat on the Senate committee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), said last week that she expects the CJS bill to reach the Senate floor in 2-3 weeks.  The Senate has not passed any of the 12 regular appropriations bills in several years, but currently is debating the Energy-Water appropriations bill, so perhaps this year will be different.  The House Appropriations Committee, however, has not yet marked up its CJS bill and CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) indicated last week that he is not optimistic that Congress will complete action on appropriations bills by October 1 when FY2017 begins.  He expects agencies will be funded by a Continuing Resolution (CR) for the first part of FY2017.

FAA's Space Office Fares Well in Senate FY2017 Appropriations Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Apr-2016 (Updated: 22-Apr-2016 04:20 PM)

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) would receive its full request of $19.8 million for FY2017 under the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill reported from the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday.  Commercial space launch would get another $4.5 million in other sections of the bill ($2 million for integration into the National Air Space and $2.5 million for safety).  The committee also weighed in on the issue of obtaining insurance for property damage from launch accidents on non-federal property.

FAA/AST is funded as part of the FAA Operations budget.  The FY2017 request is $19.826 million, an increase of $2.026 million above FY2016's $17.800 million.  FAA/AST and its advocates had to fight to get that $17.8 million last year after the House Appropriations Committee held the office to its FY2015 funding level of $16.6 million instead of approving the $18.1 million requested.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) managed to get $250,000 added during House floor consideration of the bill, but the Senate increased it to $17.4 million and conferees on the final appropriations bill added a bit to reach the $17.8 million total.

This year, the Senate committee is first to act and it approved the full FY2017 request in its report (S. Rept. 114-243) on the T-HUD bill (S. 2844).

FAA/AST regulates and facilitates the commercial space launch industry.  Companies wanting to launch payloads to suborbital or orbital destinations, or bring them back to Earth, need an FAA license.  FAA/AST also licenses spaceports and is involved in accident investigations for commercial launch failures like those of Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic in October 2014 and SpaceX in June 2015.   The office's workload continues to grow as more companies enter the launch services business, hence the need for a bigger budget to pay for more staff positions.  The FY2017 request would fund 19 additional full time equivalents (FTEs), bringing the office's staff up to 111 FTEs.  

Bridenstine's recently introduced American Space Renaissance Act envisions an expanded role for FAA/AST in areas like space situational awareness.  It would authorize $43.2 million for FY2017, growing to $99 million by FY2021.  For now, however, Congress is dealing with the President's request of $19.826 million.

The FAA also has a small amount for commercial space transportation in the Research, Engineering, and Development (RE&D) account to fund safety-related research at FAA/AST's Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation (COE CST) and elsewhere.  As part of the $97.9 million request for RE&D safety, $2.953 million is for commercial space transportation safety.  The Senate committee approved $2.473 million (it is labeled commercial space transportation "security").   Congress appropriated $2 million for this activity in FY2016.

Another $2 million is requested as part of $20 million for Air Traffic Management (ATM) in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) account for commercial space integration into the National Air Space (NAS). The funding is to allow commercial space launches and reentries to occur without significant disruption to space and air operators.  The Senate committee approved the full $20 million for ATM, which presumably includes the $2 million for commercial space integration.

One of FAA/AST's responsibilities is establishing requirements for commercial space launch companies to obtain insurance in case of launch accidents.  The Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) Antares failure in October 2014 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA highlighted a grey area when the launch site is owned by a non-federal entity.  In that case, MARS is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, but is located at a federal launch range -- NASA's Wallops Flight Facility.

The committee included report language calling on the FAA to update those insurance regulations.  "The Committee understands that current FAA regulations requiring launch providers to clearly obtain insurance to cover property damage in the event of an accident fail to address the status of State and local property."  In the case of federal property assigned to a State government, especially at a federal launch range, "the State government should qualify as a 'contractor' or Government Launch Participant with the right to make claims under 14 CFR 440.9(d)."  The language is not directive, saying only that the committee "believes" FAA should make that change.

Senate Appropriators Approve $19.3 Billion for NASA for FY2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Apr-2016 (Updated: 22-Apr-2016 08:42 AM)

The Senate Appropriations Committee today approved $19.306 billion for NASA in FY2017, a $21 million increase over its FY2016 level of $19.285 billion, in its Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill. The Space Launch System (SLS) and its Enhanced Upper Stage (EUS), the Orion spacecraft, commercial crew, and most of the space and earth science portfolio (except for planetary science) fared well.  Aeronautics. space technology, and most of space operations held their own.

Describing the Senate committee's action is a challenge this year.  Typically, comparisons are made between what the Administration requests and what Congress approves.  For FY2017, however, the Administration used a unique approach where part of the money requested ($18.262 billion) is from appropriated funds in the discretionary portion of the federal budget -- the part of the federal budget that has always funded NASA; another portion ($663 million) is from mandatory spending, which funds entitlement programs like Medicare and Social Security; and the remainder ($100 million) is from a tax the Administration proposed to levy on oil companies for a clean transportation initiative.

NASA displays its budget request as the combination of the three -- $19.025 billion -- and breaks down the request for individual accounts like science, aeronautics, and space technology accordingly.  The $100 million from the oil company tax was designated entirely for aeronautics, for example, so NASA's budget chart shows the aeronautics request as $790.4 million, a sharp increase from the $640 million appropriated for the current year.

Congress summarily rejected the Administration's notion of taxing the oil companies, however, and appropriations committees have no authority over mandatory spending.  From the Senate Appropriations Committee's standpoint, therefore, the request was $18.262 billion.  Throughout its report, the committee compares what it approved to that figure, not to the $19.025 billion that NASA displays.  It therefore is very important to exercise care when reading the committee's report because it may say that it provided more or less than "the request," but that may not be obvious looking at NASA's budget presentation.

The following discussion compares the Senate committee's actions as shown in its report (S. Rept. 114-239 to accompany S. 2837) to current spending instead of to the request because of the ambiguity.

SLS does very well.  It is being built in Alabama, the home state of Sen. Richard Shelby, who chairs the CJS subcommittee.  The committee approved $2.150 billion, an increase of $150 million over FY2016.  Of that amount, $300 million is designated for EUS.   Alternately called the Exploration Upper Stage or Enhanced Upper Stage, it is needed for SLS flights that will launch crews aboard the Orion spacecraft.  The first SLS mission, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1), will be a test of an unoccupied Orion and the EUS is not needed for that.  The second mission, EM-2, will carry a crew, but NASA has been planning  to use an interim upper stage (Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage) for that mission and then build the EUS for EM-3 and beyond.   EUS advocates argue that spending money to human-rate the interim stage for one mission is wasteful.  They want to get EUS ready for EM-2 and so far Congress has agreed.  The Senate committee also added a small amount of money ($30 million) for Orion compared to current spending, a total of $1.3 billion.

The commercial crew program, for years the source of strong debate between the Administration and Congress, seems to have turned a page.  The committee approved $1,184.8 million, slightly less than current spending, but in this case it is a planned reduction since the program has passed its peak funding phase.

The science budget overall is $194 million less than current spending.  Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope is lower than FY2016 ($569.4 million versus $620.0 million), but, like commercial crew, it is a planned reduction.  Earth science is slightly higher than current funding ($1,984 million compared to $1,921 million in FY2016) and includes $130 million for Landsat 9, with launch in 2020.  Planetary science suffers the biggest reduction in this account -- a $275 million cut from $1,631 million currently to $1,356 million.   The committee expresses support for the mission to Jupiter's moon Europa that is a favorite of House CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson, but does not specify how much funding is provided.  It is widely expected that the House Appropriations Committee will include significant Europa funding and the two committees will reach agreement in conference.

Space technology is level-funded at $686.5 million (compared to FY2016) and the committee specifies that $130 million of that is for the RESTORE-L satellite servicing technology development program that was shifted into space technology from space operations last year.  Aeronautics would receive $601 million, $39 million less than FY2016.

A SpacePolicyOnline.com fact sheet provides additional information and tables explaining more of the committee's actions.

Bipartisan Senate Bill Clarifies Space Weather Responsibilities, Promotes Research - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Apr-2016 (Updated: 29-Apr-2016 05:35 PM)

Three Senators introduced legislation yesterday to clarify federal agency responsibilities for space weather research and forecasting.  Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced S. 2817, which allocates specific roles to NOAA, DOD, NASA, NSF and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  NOAA, for example, is directed to "immediately begin planning" to ensure there is no gap in solar observations.  The bill focuses on policy and does not authorize any funding. [UPDATE:  The Senate Commerce committee announced this afternoon that it will mark up the bill on Wednesday, April 27.] [UPDATE 2: The bill was ordered favorably reported from committee.]

Space weather -- the result of particles emitted by the Sun interacting with Earth's atmosphere and potentially damaging satellites and ground-based infrastructure like the electric grid -- is of growing concern.   A 2008 report from the National Research Council raised awareness of the societal and economic impacts of space weather.  NASA has studied solar and space physics, the underlying science behind space weather, for decades as has the European Space Agency (ESA).  Satellites positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point now give warnings of solar eruptions.  NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO issues forecasts and alerts when damaging events are expected.

NASA's veteran Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and ESA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) were joined by the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) last year.  ACE was launched in 1997 and SOHO in 1995.  NASA provided three of SOHO's 12 instruments and operates the spacecraft.  SOHO has a type of telescope called a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption on the Sun.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that in turn allow SWPC to make its forecasts.

Last year in its FY2016 budget request, the White House proposed that NASA be responsible for all non-military satellite earth observations, with NOAA responsible only for weather satellites, including space weather.  NOAA requested $2.5 million to begin planning for the next space weather satellite.  Congress agreed with the assignment of responsibilities, but approved only half the funding.  The FY2017 request is also $2.5 million.

In October 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan.  They set six strategic goals to reduce the nation's vulnerability to space weather.

Some of the OSTP goals, such as establishing benchmarks for space weather events, are contained in the new legislation. the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act.   The bill would clarify the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies for understanding, predicting and forecasting space weather:

  • NOAA and DOD would provide operational space weather forecasts;
  • NASA and NSF would conduct basic heliophysics research, develop next generation technologies, and transfer findings, data and models to operational forecasters;
  • NOAA would immediately begin planning for back-up solar observations to prevent a single point of failure in the current satellite fleet (SOHO's age is of particular concern);
  • the four agencies would begin planning for next-generation observations and science missions;
  • the agencies would develop space weather benchmarks to characterize the nature, frequency, and intensity of expected space weather events; and
  • the Department of Homeland Security would assess the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to space weather events.

The bill has other provisions to foster greater interagency cooperation, multidisciplinary research, and partnerships with international, commercial and academic organizations.   It also directs NASA to "seek to implement" missions identified in the most recent NRC Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics.

Dan Baker, Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, chaired that Decadal Survey and praised the legislation in a press release issued by the Senators:  "I believe this legislation will be instrumental in helping the nation achieve the kind of operational space weather system that we've long needed."   The CEO and Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Christine McEntee, also supports the bill, saying AGU applauds "the bill's intent to further scientifically informed action towards disaster preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery."

The bill was referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which announced on April 21 that it will mark up the bill on April 27 at 10:00 am ET (along with several other bills and pending nominations).   All three sponsors of the legislation are members of the committee and of its Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee.  Peters is the ranking member (top Democrat) on that subcommittee.

Update:  This article was updated at 2:20 pm ET on April 21 to reflect the Senate Commerce Committee's announcement that it will mark up the bill next week.

Senate Subcommittee Approves $19.3 Billion for NASA, Outlook in House Also Positive

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Apr-2016 (Updated: 19-Apr-2016 08:30 PM)

The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.3 billion for NASA today.  That is only a first step in the appropriations process, but a sign that Congress wants to maintain NASA at its current funding level.   The chairman of the House CJS subcommittee also offered encouraging words today.

NASA's FY2017 budget request is $18.262 billion in appropriated funds and $763 million that would be moved from the mandatory portion of the federal budget (that funds programs like Social Security and Medicare) into the discretionary category and allocated to NASA, for a total of $19.025 billion.  Such an approach has never been used before and appropriations committees have no control over mandatory spending.  Congress has sharply criticized the Administration for using such a "gimmick," but expressed support for NASA at its current (FY2016) funding level of $19.285 billion.

Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee chair Richard Shelby (R-AL) reasserted his objection to the gimmick, but announced that NASA would receive $19.3 billion for FY2017 under his subcommittee's recommendation.  Subcommittee vice-chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) later said that the recommended level for FY2017 is $21 million above FY2016, which still rounds to $19.3 billion.  

The committee released a broad summary of the subcommittee's recommendations, but not details.  Those typically are provided after full committee markup, which is scheduled for Thursday morning.  According to the summary --

  • the Space Launch System (SLS), which is being built in Shelby's home state of Alabama, will receive $2.15 billion, which is $150 million more than in FY2016 and $920 million above the request.   Included in that total is $300 million for the Enhanced (or Exploration) Upper Stage (EUS);
  • Orion will receive $1.3 billion, $30 million more than FY2016 and $247 million more than the request;
  • Science will receive $5.4 billion, $194 million less than FY2016, but $247 million more than the request;
  • Commercial crew will receive $1.18 billion, the same as the request; and
  • Space Technology will receive $687 million, the same as FY2016 and $4.1 million less than the request.

Mikulski said yesterday that she expects the bill to go to the Senate floor for consideration in the next 2-3 weeks, though whether it will pass or not remains to be seen.  The Senate has not passed any of the 12 individual appropriations bills in several years.  Typically, when the new fiscal year begins on October 1, the government ends up being funded by one or more Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that keep agencies at their previous year's funding level, followed by an "omnibus" or "consolidated" appropriations that combines all 12 appropriations bills and funds agencies for the entire fiscal year (a "full year" appropriations).

Shelby's House counterpart, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), clearly expects that to play out this year as well.   He was scheduled to speak to a Space Transportation Association (STA) luncheon today, but stopped by only long enough to apologize profusely that the House Appropriations Committee was marking up other legislation at the same time and his presence was required there.  In his brief visit, he said he expects the government to be funded by a CR initially, but is optimistic that a full year appropriations will pass in due course and NASA will do well.  He said he expected the Senate markup to be higher in some areas and lower in others than what his House committee will recommend, but it will be worked out in conference: "Senator Shelby is as committed to NASA as I am. ... NASA's number will be one that we are all going to be excited and proud of" and includes funding for the robotic mission to Europa that he champions.

STA was prepared for the possibility that Culberson might not be able to stay long and had arranged in advance for the head of NASA's science programs, John Grunsfeld, to give a presentation instead.  Grunsfeld is retiring from NASA at the end of the month and STA used today's event as an opportunity to present him with its Leadership Award while Culberson was present.

Grunsfeld focused on the search for life in the universe, noting that the search for life is different from the search for intelligent life -- whether in the universe or, jokingly, inside the Beltway (a highway that surrounds Washington, DC).   After describing NASA efforts to find other Earth-like planets using the Kepler Space Telescope and larger potential telescopes, he was asked about his views on the recently announced Breakthrough Initiative by Yuri Millner and Stephen Hawking to send tiny spacecraft to Alpha Centauri.   In short, he thinks "it's cool."

He also said that he considers SLS "transformative" for space science because it can launch much larger spacecraft -- in mass and volume - including space telescopes and planetary exploration spacecraft and dramatically shorten the time to reach destinations compared to today's rockets.

Events of Interest


 

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