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Texas Remains Powerful Space Influence as House Appropriations, Senate Commerce Announce Subcommittee Chairs

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-Jan-2017 (Updated: 11-Jan-2017 12:16 AM)

The House Appropriations Committee announced the members who will chair its 12 subcommittees today.   At the same time, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee announced the Republican members and chairs of its six subcommittees.  There is no change for NASA and NOAA, but the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee will get a new chairwoman -- Kay Granger of Texas.  She joins fellow Texans in chairing key space-related committees and subcommittees.

Appropriations committees determine how much money federal departments and agencies get and how they must spend it.  The House and Senate Appropriations Committees each have 12 subcommittees that oversee all of the government's "discretionary spending" -- the funding Congress debates each year, as compared with "mandatory" spending such as Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and interest on the national debt, which is set by other means.

Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ) is the new House Appropriations Committee chairman, replacing Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) who hit a 6-year term limit imposed by House rules and had to relinquish the job.  Rogers had indicated interest in chairing the defense appropriations subcommittee, which oversees about half of all discretionary spending, but that went to Rep. Kay Granger of Texas instead.  She is beginning her 11th term in Congress.  Frelinghuysen chaired the defense subcommittee in the last Congress and Granger was his vice-chairwoman.  She represents a district that includes Fort Worth and is a champion of Lockheed Martin's F-35 program.  F-35s are assembled at a plant in Fort Worth.  President-elect Donald Trump has been critical of the F-35's cost.  Granger's views on national security space programs is unclear.  (Rogers will chair the State-Foreign Operations subcommittee.)

Rep. John Culberson, also of Texas, will continue to chair the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that oversees NASA and NOAA, as well as the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). He is a planetary science enthusiast, particularly of a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa because he believes life will be discovered there.  In a November 30, 2016 interview with Science, he expressed skepticism about the value of OSTP or a revived National Space Council, and support for earth science research, though he was coy about whether that should be a NASA responsibility.

The Senate Commerce Committee is an authorization committee that oversees NASA and NOAA.  Authorization committees set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not have any money to spend.  Only appropriators have money, but they are supposed to be guided by the recommendations of authorization committees, which are expected to have more detailed knowledge of an agency's activities.

NASA is overseen by the Science, Space and Competitiveness Subcommittee, which will continue to be chaired by Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.  Cruz was busy running for President in the last Congress and held few hearings on space, but in those that he did, he expressed support for space exploration -- with earth science to be reassigned to other agencies -- and commercial space.   Other Republican members of the subcommittee are from Utah (Mike Lee), Colorado (Cory Gardner), Kansas (Jerry Moran), Alaska (Dan Sullivan), Wisconsin (Ron Johnson), and West Virginia (Shelley Moore Capito). 

NOAA is the responsibility of the subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard.  It will be chaired by Dan Sullivan of Alaska. Other members are from Wisconsin (Ron Johnson), Mississippi (Roger Wicker), Oklahoma (Jim Inhofe), Colorado (Cory Gardner), Utah (Mike Lee), and Indiana (Todd Young). 

In the House, Rep. Lamar Smith, another Texan, will continue to chair the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  It oversees NASA, NOAA, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and NOAA and its Office of Space Commerce. The top Democrat on the committee, Eddie Bernie Johnson, also is from Texas, as is the Republican chairman of the Space Subcommittee, Brian Babin. 

Updated with clarification that Rep. Rogers will chair the House Appropriations State-Foreign Ops subcommittee.  Also, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart of Florida will continue to chair the Transportation-HUD subcommittee, which funds the FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, and Rep. Ken Calvert of California will continue to chair the Interior-Environment subcommittee, which funds the U.S. Geological Survey (which operates the Landsat satellites).

What's Happening in Space Policy January 8-14, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Jan-2017 (Updated: 09-Jan-2017 09:52 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 8-14, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

The BIG space event this week will be the return to flight of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket.   Recently postponed from tomorrow (Monday) to Saturday, it will place 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites into orbit.  The FAA approved the launch license on Friday, but Monday's launch slipped to Saturday because of inclement weather forecast at the launch site -- Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.   SpaceX is recovering from a September 1, 2016 incident that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the AMOS-6 communications satellite during preparations for a static fire test two days before the scheduled launch. The static fire test for this launch was successfully accomplished on Thursday.

Here in Washington, the Senate will begin confirmation hearings for individuals President-elect Trump plans to nominate for Cabinet-level positions once he is President (on January 20).  Three have space responsibilities:  Secretary of Defense nominee-designate Gen. James Mattis (Ret.), Secretary of Commerce nominee-designate Wilbur J. Ross, Jr., and Secretary of Transportation nominee-designate Elaine Chao.  NOAA is part of the Department of Commerce.  The FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation are part of the Department of Transportation (DOT).   Senate Democrats are objecting to some of the hearings because the non-partisan Office of Government Ethics has not had time to vet all of the nominees-designate for conflicts of interest yet.  Accusations are flying back and forth between Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, all of which may be fascinating politically, but not really relevant to the space program, so we will leave it at that.  The Chao hearing is on Wednesday; the Mattis and Ross hearings are on Thursday.

Elsewhere in the country, AIAA will hold its annual SciTech forum, including the Aerospace Sciences meeting, in Grapevine, TX.  The AIAA website does not indicate which, if any, sessions will be livestreamed, but AIAA does webcast plenary and other special sessions at some of its conferences.  If we learn about a link to watch, we will add it to our calendar entry for this event.  There certainly are a lot of very interesting sessions on the agenda. UPDATE:  AIAA is livestreaming here.

The Earth Science Subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council's (NAC's) Science Committee will meet at Kennedy Space Center, FL on Tuesday and Wednesday.  Many earth scientists are nervous about the future of NASA's earth science program in a Trump Administration.  That's because former Congressman Bob Walker, who was a space adviser to Trump during the campaign and continues to play an advisory role on the transition team, believes NASA's "earth-centric" programs should be transferred to other government agencies so NASA can focus on exploration. It is a view shared by key congressional Republicans who oversee NASA.  With Republicans in charge of the House, Senate and White House, and the retirement of Sen. Barbara Mikulski who effectively defended NASA's program, the likelihood has increased.  It would be surprising if the NAC subcommittee has any better inkling of what the incoming Trump Administration plans to do, but anyone can listen in to the meeting to find out.  NASA Earth Science Division Director Mike Freilich is on the agenda Tuesday morning.  (Note that the remote participation option is audio only.)

NASA's Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) also meets this week. That one is in Arizona from Wednesday-Friday.  Presumably they will be cheering NASA's announcement last week of the selection of two asteroid missions (Psyche and Lucy) as the next two Discovery missions, while ruing the non-selection of a third -- NEOCam (though it will get another year of funding).  They also may discuss last week's release of the White House's National NEO Preparedness Strategy.  The White House said a companion "action plan" would soon follow.  Perhaps there will be some news on that.  The meeting will be available remotely through Adobe Connect.  Note that all times on the agenda are in Mountain Standard Time. NASA Planetary Division Director Jim Green will speak on Wednesday at 9:10 am Mountain Time (11:10 am Eastern).  Michele Gates and Dan Mazanek will provide an update on the Asteroid Redirect Mission at 4:10 pm MT (6:10 pm Eastern) on Wednesday.

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

Sunday-Thursday, January 8-12

Monday-Friday, January 9-13

Tuesday-Wednesday, January 10-11

Wednesday, January 11

Wednesday-Friday, January 11-13

Thursday, January 12

Friday, January 13

Saturday, January 14

SpaceX Gets Ready for Monday Iridium Launch After FAA Grants License - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Jan-2017 (Updated: 08-Jan-2017 02:19 PM)

The FAA today approved a launch license for SpaceX following its acceptance of the company's report on a September 1 incident that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the Israeli AMOS-6 communications satellite.  The launch license allows SpaceX to proceed with the launch of 10 Iridium communications satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  The launch is scheduled for Monday, January 9, weather permitting.  [UPDATE:  The launch has been postponed to January 14 at 9:54:34 am Pacific Time]

SpaceX and Iridium earlier indicated that the launch would take place on Sunday.  The reason for the one-day delay has not been revealed. 

[UPDATE: The delay from January 9 to January 14 is due to weather.]

The launch will place 10 of Iridium's next-generation satellites, Iridium NEXT, into orbit.  Iridium operates a constellation of 66 satellites (plus spares) to provide mobile communications services similar to terrestrial cell phones, but using satellites instead of cell towers to relay the signals.

This is the first SpaceX launch since the September 1, 2016 incident when a Falcon 9 rocket on its launch pad at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL was engulfed in flames and exploded during fueling for a routine static fire test two days prior to the scheduled launch.  The pad at CCAFS's Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) was badly damaged.   SpaceX determined that although a single definitive cause could not be identified, the most likely cause was accumulation of oxygen between the liner of a composite overwrapped pressure vessel (COPV) in a liquid oxygen (LOX) tank in the rocket's second stage.

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) is in charge of facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry and issues licenses for commercial launches like those carried out by SpaceX.  Under those regulations, the company itself, not the government, is in charge of investigating any launch mishaps.  SpaceX carried out this investigation, but with the participation of the FAA, the Air Force and NASA, among others.  The FAA needs to be satisfied with the investigation to determine whether to issue new launch licenses.  NASA and the Air Force are SpaceX customers and lease launch pads to SpaceX -- the Air Force's SLC-40 at CCAFS and SLC-4E at Vandenberg, and NASA's Launch Complex 39A at Kennedy Space Center, adjacent to CCAFS.

The FAA announced that it approved the launch license today, which is actually for seven launches from SLC-4E, each delivering 10 Iridium NEXT satellites to orbit.   In an emailed statement, it said: "The FAA accepted the investigation report on the AMOS-6 mishap and has closed the investigation. SpaceX applied for a license to launch the Iridium NEXT satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base. The FAA has granted a license for that purpose."

Iridium later said via Twitter (@IridiumComm) that the launch will take place at 10:22 am Pacific Standard Time (1:22 pm EST) on Monday, January 9, weather permitting.  The routine static fire test of this Falcon 9 was successfully completed yesterday.  In a static fire test, the rocket is fueled and ignited, but the lock down clamps remain in place so the rocket stays on the pad. 

[UPDATE:  Iridium said on January 8 that the launch was postponed to January 14 at 9:54:34 am Pacific Standard Time due to "high winds and rain" in the forecast.]

Obama Administration Assesses Its Space Achievements in "Exit Memos"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jan-2017 (Updated: 05-Jan-2017 09:13 PM)

President Obama directed all of his Cabinet-level appointees to prepare "exit memos" on progress made during his Administration and what needs to come next.   NASA is not a cabinet-level agency so did not have a chance to weigh in, but the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) did, listing a number of accomplishments at NASA and other government science and technology organizations.  The Secretary of Defense and Secretary of Commerce (NOAA's parent) also included space activities in their wrap-ups.

OSTP's memo, by OSTP Director and presidential science adviser John Holdren and U.S. Chief Technology Officer (CTO) Megan Smith, lists "fostering a burgeoning private space sector and increased capabilities for our journey to Mars" tenth on the list of top 10 Obama Administration accomplishments in science and technology. (The CTO is part of OSTP.)  Later it identifies achievements in 5 categories of "frontiers" building on the White House Frontiers Conference held in October 2016.  One is "Interplanetary Frontiers."

In sum, OSTP heralds the following space-related Obama Administration achievements:

  • extending the International Space Space (ISS) to 2024, commercial cargo, and progress on commercial crew;
  • supporting the Journey to Mars and a robust U.S. commercial space market, including continued development of advanced space technology for life support and solar electric propulsion, collaboration with industry to develop deep space habitats, and initiating efforts to allow the private sector to add their own modules to ISS;
  • advancing space science through NASA, NSF and the Department of Energy (DOE), with shout-outs to the Kepler Space Observatory, the Curiosity Mars rover, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, Juno, and the James Webb Space Telescope (plus NSF's ground-based Atacama Large Millimeter Array and the NSF/DOE Large Synoptic Survey Telescope);
  • enhancing prediction of and preparedness for space hazards, notably Near Earth Objects (NEOs) and space weather; and
  • harnessing the small satellite revolution.

The OSTP memo then lists 10 actions needed for the future to address science and technology challenges.  None are specific to space, but more general.  First and foremost is investment in fundamental research.  STEM education, supporting innovative entrepreneurs, and continuing international cooperation and engagement are also on the list.

The exit memo from Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter also touches on space activities. One paragraph restates DOD's warning that space is no longer a sanctuary and "we must be prepared for the possibility of a conflict that extends into space." It states that the Obama Administration has spent $22 billion "to defend and improve the resiliency of our assets in space and put potential adversary space systems at risk, helping ensure the advantages of space are available for U.S. forces in the future."  The memo implores the incoming Administration to ensure that reconnaissance, GPS, and secure communications can be provided and "ensure and defend these capabilities against aggressive and comprehensive space programs of others."

The DOD memo also stresses the need to "ensure America pioneers and dominates the technological frontiers related to military superiority" noting that it is no longer just a matter of bigger or better weapons, but the "additional variable of speed" -- who can "out-innovate faster than everyone else."

Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker noted the recent launch of the first next-generation geostationary weather satellite, GOES-R/GOES-16 and the upcoming launch of the first next-generation polar orbiting weather satellite, JPSS-1, in her exit memo.  She said that the launch of JPSS-1 must be a priority to ensure there will be no gaps in satellite coverage.  (That launch recently slipped from March 2017 to the fourth quarter of FY2017.)

Interestingly, Pritzker concluded by saying she is convinced taxpayers would be better served by a "streamlined 'Department of Business,' similar to the President's 2012 government reorganization proposal."  Under that proposal, NOAA would have moved from the Department of Commerce to the Department of the Interior.

All of the exit memos are accessible from the White House website, which will change on January 20 when Donald Trump assumes office, of course, so where these will be available electronically thereafter is unknown.

White House Releases National NEO Preparedness Strategy

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Jan-2017 (Updated: 03-Jan-2017 03:07 PM)

The Obama White House today released a National Near Earth Object Preparedness Strategy to improve the country's preparedness to deal with the potential hazards of Near Earth Objects (NEOs) -- asteroids and comets. The report says a companion action plan is forthcoming.

The report was prepared by an interagency working group under the National Science and Technology Council (NSTC), which is part of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).   It was co-chaired by OSTP's Fred Kennedy and NASA's Lindley Johnson.  Johnson is NASA's Planetary Defense Officer and in charge of NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office (PDCO).  

The Detecting and Mitigating the Impacts of Earth-Bound Near-Earth Objects (DAMIEN) working group included representatives of the White House (OSTP and the Office of Management and Budget); Director of National Intelligence (DNI); NASA; National Science Foundation (NSF); Department of State; DOD (including DARPA and Air Force Strategic Command); Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA, part of the Department of Homeland Security); National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and Lawrence Livermore Lab (both part of the Department of Energy); U.S. Geological Survey (USGS, part of the Department of Interior); Federal Aviation Administration (FAA, part of Department of Transportation); and National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), both part of the Department of Commerce.

The meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 offered a stark reminder of what can happen when an asteroid reaches Earth (asteroids are rocks in space; when they enter and descend through Earth's atmosphere they are meteors; surviving pieces are meteorites).  History is filled with much more dramatic examples, such as the asteroid impact that many believe led to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago or the more recent (1908) Tunguska event.  

In the 1990s, Congress directed NASA to locate and track the largest (1 kilometer or more in diameter), and therefore most potentially hazardous, NEOs.  Subsequent congressional direction lowered the threshold to 140 meters or larger.  NASA's NEO program got a boost after Chelyabinsk and President Obama's decision to send humans to an asteroid as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission. 

NASA's creation of PDCO and designation of Johnson as Planetary Defense Officer, plus ongoing discussions at the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS), are more signals of the increasing seriousness with which NEO impacts are being considered even though they are "low probability, high-consequence" hazards.

The DAMIEN strategy outlines objectives for enhancing U.S. preparedness in hazard and threat assessment, decision-making, and response.  It defines seven strategic goals for federal research, development, deployment, operations, coordination and engagement.  

One of the most critical factors is how long Earthlings would have to prepare for a potential impact -- a day, a year, a decade, many decades?  The options for response depend on that timing.  Not surprisingly, therefore, the first of the seven goals is to enhance detection, tracking and characterization capabilities.  The second is to develop methods to deflect or disrupt a NEO's path. The others are improving modeling, predictions and information integration; developing emergency procedures; establishing impact response and recovery procedures; leveraging and supporting international cooperation; and establishing coordination and communications protocols and thresholds for taking action.

The report promises a forthcoming action plan to implement the strategy and achieve those goals, followed by three-year updates.  It adds, however, that full implementation requires a global network of governments, U.S. government agencies, and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations, including academia, the media, non-profits and industry.  "These partnerships between the United States and the international community, industry and academia will form the backbone of preparations for any threat of a NEO impact event."

NASA Landing Team Gets 8th Member -- Charles Miller

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jan-2017 (Updated: 02-Jan-2017 10:50 PM)

The President-Elect Transition Team (PETT) added another member to the NASA "landing team" -- Charles Miller.  Rumors are that two others soon will be appointed, but as of today, their names are not on the PETT list.  Miller is the eighth member of the team, which will cease to exist once Donald Trump is sworn into office on January 20 and the "transition" ends.  Some may be appointed by the White House to remain at NASA thereafter, however.

Chris Shank leads the NASA landing team. The other members are Greg Autry, Jack Burns, Steve Cook, Rod Liesveld, Sandy Magnus, and Jeff Waksman.

Miller is the President of NexGen Space LLC, which describes itself as providing "client-based services at the intersection of commercial space, civil space, national security space, and public policy."


Charles Miller.  Photo credit:  Miller's LinkedIn page.

Miller worked at NASA as a senior advisor on commercial space in the early years of the Obama Administration and led assessments for NASA on commercial orbital debris mitigation and removal, satellite servicing, reusable launch vehicles, and funded Space Act Agreements.  He was the NASA program executive for the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program and led a study on propellant depots.  Before joining NASA, he was a co-founder of Nanoracks; co-founder and President and CEO of Constellation Services International; and founder and President of ProSpace, an advocacy group.

The two others rumored to be in line for appointment are Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) Chairman of the Board and former NASA Associate Administrator for Science Alan Stern and Alan Lindenmoyer, former program manager of NASA's commercial  crew and cargo program.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article misidentified Alan Stern as CSF's President.  He is Chairman of the Board.  Eric Stallmer is President.

 

SpaceX Ready to Return to Flight on January 8 with 10 Iridium NEXT Satellites

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jan-2017 (Updated: 02-Jan-2017 10:47 AM)

SpaceX announced today that it has completed its investigation of the September 1, 2016 incident that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its payload and is ready to resume launches.  The next launch, of 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites, is scheduled for January 8, 2017 from the company's west coast launch pad at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.

On September 1, a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 communications satellite payload were destroyed during a test two days before the planned launch. The rocket was being fueled for a routine static-fire test when something went awry, causing a fire and multiple explosions as shown in a video captured by USLaunchReport.com.  In addition to losing the rocket and satellite, the launch pad, Space Launch Complex 40 (SLC-40) at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL,  was badly damaged.

SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk characterized it as the "most difficult and complex failure we have seen."   By October, the company determined that one of three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the rocket's liquid oxygen (LOX) tank had failed.  It said it had been able to recreate the failure "entirely through helium loading conditions" that "are mainly affected by the temperature and pressure of the helium being loaded."

Today, the company said on its website the investigation was completed, although a single definitive cause was not identified.  The conclusion is that one of the three COPVs failed "likely due to the accumulation of oxygen between the COPV liner and overwrap in a void or a buckle in a liner... The investigation team identified several credible causes ... all of which involve accumulation of super chilled LOX or SOX [solid oxygen] in buckles under the overwrap."  Corrective actions "address all credible causes" and involve both short- and long-term actions.  In the short-term, the COPV configuration will be changed to allow warmer helium to be loaded and helium loading operations will be returned to "a prior flight proven configuration..."  In the long-term, the design of the COPVs will be changed "to prevent buckles altogether..."

The Falcon 9 has been grounded since September 1, delaying launches for commercial and government customers.  At least one customer, Inmarsat, decided to switch to one of SpaceX's competitors, Arianespace, to avoid further delays.

Most other customers have stayed with SpaceX and the upcoming launch is for Iridium, a communications satellite company that uses a constellation of 66 relatively small satellites to provide mobile communications to hand-held devices (essentially cell phones, but linked through satellites instead of terrestrial towers).  Iridium is replenishing its constellation with a new generation of satellites, Iridium NEXT.   The first 10 will be aboard the January 8 launch.

Via Twitter, Iridium said it was pleased with the announcement.

These satellites are going into high inclination orbits, so must be launched from Vandenberg rather than the east coast so the flight path remains over the ocean instead of populated areas.  SpaceX leases launch pads from the Air Force at Vandenberg (SLC-4E) and CCAFS (SLC-40), as well as NASA's Launch Complex-39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center, FL, adjacent to CCAFS.  It also has plans to build its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.  The company has said little about when or if it will repair SLC-40.  It can use LC-39A for east-coast launches of either Falcon 9 or the more capable Falcon Heavy now in development.

 

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

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Jan-2017 (Updated: 01-Jan-2017 01:33 PM)

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

During the Week

Happy New Year!  Welcome to 2017 and, on Tuesday, to the 115th Congress.  Under the Constitution, a new session of Congress begins on January 3 of each year.  The second session of the 114th Congress officially will end and the first session of the 115th Congress will begin at 12:00 pm ET that day.

The House will meet at 11:00 am on Tuesday for legislative business to end the 114th Congress (to adjourn "sine die" -- without a day for that Congress to reconvene) and then will meet at noon to convene the 115th Congress.  They will begin with a recorded quorum call followed by the election of the Speaker of the House (Rep. Paul Ryan is expected to win that vote) and swearing in of the other members.  The House will be composed of 241 Republicans (a net loss of six seats) and 194 Democrats (a net gain of six seats).  Several pieces of legislation are scheduled for floor action this coming week, but none related to the space program judging by their titles. They can't be officially introduced and assigned bill numbers until the 115th Congress convenes, but the House Majority Leader's website lists their titles. 

The Senate will meet on Tuesday in pro forma session at 11:55 am ET to close the 114th Congress.  The Senate website doesn't say so, but presumably it also will convene for the 115th Congress at noon and swear in its members.  The Senate will be composed of 52 Republicans, 46 Democrats and 2 Independents (Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who remained an Independent throughout his run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and Angus King of Maine). That is a net loss of two seats for Republicans and a net gain of two seats for Democrats. The two Independents caucus with the Democrats so it is essentially a 52-48 split.

The only hearing on either side of the Hill that we've seen posted is on foreign cyber threats to the United States.  That's before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday at 9:30 am ET.  Not really space-related, but certainly of broad interest.  Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence Marcel Lettre III, and Commander of U.S. Cyber Command/Director, National Security Agency/Chief, Central Security Services Adm. Michael Rogers are the witnesses.

On Friday, the House and Senate will meet in joint session at 1:00 pm ET to count the Electoral College votes officially, bringing the 2016 presidential election to an end.  On December 19, the electors cast their votes.  Donald Trump received 306, Hillary Clinton 232, making Trump the winner.  Clinton won the popular vote by about 2.9 million, but in the U.S. system, it is the Electoral College vote that determines the outcome.  Trump will be sworn in at noon ET on January 20.  Barack Obama remains President until then.

Outside the Beltway, the American Astronomical Society (AAS) will hold its winter meeting in Grapevine, TX.   This is where the world's astronomers and astrophysicists get together and discuss recent discoveries and future plans.  Always fascinating, but usually one has to be there to learn about it in real time. The sessions and press conferences are not publicly webcast.  Only a few are webcast for the media (a special password is required; instructions for obtaining it are on the conference's website).  However, some archived webcasts are made available later.

NASA will hold a press conference at Johnson Space Center on Wednesday to discuss two upcoming spacewalks -- the first is on Friday -- to upgrade the International Space Station's electrical power system.  NASA TV will cover the press conference and the spacewalk.

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.

Tuesday, January 3

  • 115th Congress convenes

Tuesday-Saturday, January 3-7

Wednesday, January 4

Friday, January 6

New Chinese 5-Year Space Plan Offers Few Surprises

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Dec-2016 (Updated: 28-Dec-2016 02:18 AM)

China released its latest 5-year plan for space activities today.  While it states that China will "unremittingly" pursue the "dream" of building itself into a space power, the plan itself offers only modest goals for that period, most of which have been discussed openly for some time. They include a multi-modular space station in the early 2020s, continued robotic exploration of the Moon, and a robotic Mars orbiter/lander/rover in 2020. Bolder goals apparently are in the works in the longer term, however.   A Chinese space official said at an associated press conference that a new super-heavy lift rocket is planned for around 2030.

This is the fourth in a series of 5-year plans -- called "white papers" -- that summarize prior achievements and lay out the path forward.  The earlier versions were released in 2000, 2006 and 2011.  The 2011 plan also was modest, but mentioned preliminary studies of human lunar landings.  Today's document is silent on that topic, saying only that China wants to "lay a foundation for exploring and developing cislunar space."  For the near-term, space stations in earth orbit are the focus.  The white paper notes China's well-known plan to launch a robotic cargo spacecraft, Tianzhou-1, to its Tiangong-2 space station in 2017.  Tiangong-2 was launched in September 2016 and was occupied by a two-man crew for 30 days in October-November, the longest Chinese human spaceflight to date.  It is currently unoccupied and no one will be aboard when Tianzhou-1 docks and conducts a refueling test.  The launch is scheduled for April.

Tiangong-2 is small, just 8.6 metric tons, but China has said for years that it will orbit a three-module 60-ton space station by 2022 or 2023.  The new white paper provides no clarification on the timing, saying only that "We aim to complete the main research and development work on the space station modules, and start assembly and operation of the space station" within the 5-year period.

Robotic exploration of the Moon remains a prominent theme.  China has a three-prong strategy to send spacecraft successively to orbit, land, and return a sample from the Moon.  It accomplished the first two of those goals already with its Chang'e-1, -2 and -3 spacecraft.  Chang'e-3 was a lander that deployed the Yutu rover in 2013.  Although the rover suffered a mechanical failure and did not achieve all of its objectives, it and the lander transmitted data back to Earth long after their design lifetimes, as recently as this year.

The lunar sample return mission, Chang'e-5, is scheduled for launch in 2017 as restated today.  The white paper also confirms that Chang'e-4, originally designed as a backup for Chang'e-3, instead will break new ground by landing on the far side of the Moon, the first spacecraft designed to make a soft landing there.  The far side of the Moon always faces away from Earth, so a communications satellite will be needed to relay signals back to ground stations. Today's white paper confirms that Chang'e-4 will be launched in 2018 and the relay satellite will be positioned at the Earth-Moon L2 Lagrange point.

The white paper reasserts China's plan to launch a robotic orbiter/lander/rover to Mars in 2020.  China's only prior attempt at Mars exploration was a small orbiter included in Russia's unsuccessful Phobos-Grunt mission.  It also says that studies and technological research will be conducted for a Mars sample return mission, asteroid exploration, and exploration of the Jupiter system, as well as research into the origin and evolution of the solar system and the search for extraterrestrial life.  No time frame is provided for launching spacecraft to achieve any of those objectives.

The white paper lists many earth-orbiting space science and space applications projects that are planned, as well as development of new launch vehicles.  China has introduced four new launch vehicles in the past 15 months, three of which use environmentally-friendly (liquid oxygen/kerosene) fuel:  Long March 5, Long March 6 and Long March 7.  A solid-fueled Long March 11 also had its first flight.  Long March 6 and 11 are for very small satellites, Long March 7 is for medium-sized satellites, and Long March 5 is China's largest rocket to date.  Capable of placing 25 metric tons into low Earth orbit (LEO), it is slightly smaller than the U.S. Delta IV Heavy (28.4 metric tons to LEO).  

China has said in the past that it is studying a much larger rocket, Long March 9, capable of placing 130 metric tons into low Earth orbit, similar to the U.S. Space Launch System now in development.  The white paper makes no promises about when such a rocket will be ready, noting the significant research and development that is first required: "Endeavors will be made to research key technologies and further study the plans for developing heavy-lift launch vehicles. Breakthroughs are expected in key technologies ... for high thrust liquid oxygen and kerosene engines, and oxygen and hydrogen engines of such launch vehicles.  Thereafter the heavy-lift launch vehicle project will be activated." 

At a press conference, however, Wu Yanhua, deputy director of the China Aerospace Science and Technology Corporation, was more explicit, saying that a maiden launch is expected around 2030.  He noted the need "to make progress in the heavy-lift carrier rocket's engine first, to create conditions for the whole project."  (A brief clip from the press conference, with English subtitles, is posted on YouTube.)

The white paper provides China's overall space vision:  "To explore the vast cosmos, develop the space industry and build China into a space power is a dream we pursue unremittingly."  It repeatedly asserts that China is committed to peaceful exploration and utilization of space and is opposed to "weaponization of or an arms race in outer space."  Perhaps not surprisingly, no mention is made of China's antisatellite (ASAT) activities, such as the 2007 test against one of its own satellites that created more than 3,000 pieces of debris in the heavily-used LEO region.  Instead, the report notes that China has improved monitoring, mitigation of, early warning and protection against space debris.

Innovation, independence and self-reliance are other themes stressed in the report. 

China's space program is under the jurisdiction of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).  While in the United States it is common to distinguish among civil, commercial and national security space activities (although there clearly is overlap), such distinctions are not readily drawn in the Chinese program.  The white paper focuses on programs that generally would be considered civil space activities here, with national security explicitly mentioned only in broad terms.  The document's sections explaining the space program's purposes and vision, for example, state that the space program will "meet the demands of economic, scientific and technological development, national security and social progress" and "to effectively and reliably guarantee national security...." 

While it stresses the need for China to achieve its space goals independently, the white paper also highlights China's interest in international cooperation:  "China will promote the lofty cause of peace and development together with other countries."   In the past 5 years, China has signed 43 cooperative agreements or memoranda of understanding with 29 countries, it states, including Russia, the European Space Agency, Brazil, France, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and the United States.  The cooperation with the United States is through the China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue and concerns space debris, space weather and response to global climate change.

 

NASA Closing in on Root Cause of JWST Vibration Test Anomaly

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Dec-2016 (Updated: 23-Dec-2016 11:04 PM)

NASA is closing in on the root cause of the anomalous results produced by a December 3 vibration test on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).  Thomas Zurbuchen, the new head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate (SMD), told SpacePolicyOnline.com that dealing with the problem likely will consume one of the remaining six months of schedule reserve.

NASA is posting information about the anomalous test results and the agency's subsequent actions on a special JWST webpage:  jwst.nasa.gov/vibrationTest Status.html.   The Twitter feed for the program, @NASAWebb, has not carried any news about the problem.

During the December 3 vibration test, accelerometers on the telescope "detected anomalous readings during a particular test," the website posting states.  Today's update adds that the team is making "good progress" in identifying the root cause and two "low level vibrations" have been successfully conducted.   Analysis of the tests is ongoing "with the goal of having a review of their findings, conclusions and plans for resuming vibration testing in January."

Via email, Zurbuchen added that before the December 3 test, the program had approximately six months of schedule reserve and "we are now down to something less, probably closer to around 5 months." The project is still "trending high in reserves compared to what one would expect for a project at this time of development," he said, and the October 2018 launch date is unchanged.   Some of the reserves could be regained by rephasing of tasks and "I am sure we will try hard to do that early [in] 2017."

Zurbuchen became Associate Administrator for SMD on October 3, succeeding John Grunsfeld.  He is a heliophysicst who previously was a professor of space science and engineering at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

After repeated delays and cost growth, the JWST program was rebaselined in 2011 and has been holding to that new schedule (launch in October 2018) and cost estimate ($8 billion for development) ever since.  Thirteen months of schedule reserve were built into the new plan.   Reserve is just that -- a margin to deal with unexpected problems like this one. Conceptually, a program would utilize all of its schedule reserve by the launch date.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) is required by Congress to assess JWST's progress every year.  Its most recent report, released two weeks ago, made no recommendations, but noted that the program's success "hinges on NASA's ability to anticipate, identify, and respond to" challenges in a "timely and cost-effective manner."

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