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House Passes Compromise FY2016 NDAA, But Under Veto Threat

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Oct-2015 (Updated: 02-Oct-2015 05:29 PM)

The House passed the compromise version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday.  The Senate plans to vote on it next week, but the White House has threatened to veto the bill because it circumvents agreed-upon budget caps by using a "gimmick" to authorize additional defense funding in an off-budget account.  The argument is part of a much larger debate over budget caps and sequestration.  The President and House and Senate leaders recently agreed to negotiations and the President said today that he will not sign another short-term spending bill like the Continuing Resolution (CR) that is keeping the government open at the moment.

Leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) announced agreement on the final version of the NDAA, H.R. 1735, on Tuesday and the House adopted the conference report yesterday by a vote of 270-156.  The 270 yes votes were cast by 233 Republicans and 37 Democrats.  The no votes were by 10 Republicans and 146 Democrats.

The number of Democrats voting in favor of or against the conference report is especially important in this case because White House spokesman Josh Earnest said during a Wednesday press briefing that the President will veto the bill.   If he does, and Congress wants to override the veto, two-thirds of the House and the Senate will need to vote to do so.  The House has 435 members, so 290 votes are needed to override.  If all 247 Republicans vote to override the President's veto, they will need 43 Democrats to vote against their own President.  Only 37 voted in favor of the conference report so all of those would have to make a more difficult political decision to oppose a Democratic President and convince six more of their party colleagues to join them.

Many Democrats, including the President, object to the addition of $38 billion for defense spending in the off-budget Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) account in order to give defense more money than agreed to in caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act.  Breaking the budget caps should mean that sequestration kicks in, with across-the-board cuts to bring the total back to the capped level.   Republicans and Democrats both object to sequestration and the budget caps, but Republicans are focused on adding money only for defense, not for non-defense programs.   Democrats want both defense and non-defense spending to get relief from the caps, not preferential treatment of defense by circumventing the agreement by using what many of them call a "gimmick."

Congress and the White House have made little progress on the top-level budget issue of sequestration.   That affects appropriations, however, not authorizations like the NDAA.  Authorization bills recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually give money to agencies to spend.   It is on that basis that HASC and SASC Republicans leaders argue that the NDAA should be approved for its policy provisions and let the budget debate be resolved in the appropriations process.  Most congressional Democrats disagree and want to make their stand on the NDAA.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), the top Democrat on SASC, said in a statement on Tuesday that he could not support the bill.  Although it contains "many needed reforms," he said that it "does not realistically provide for the long-term support of our forces" because they cannot depend on using this method to obtain additional funds every year.  "I cannot sign this Conference Report because it fails to responsibly fix the sequester and provide our troops with the support they deserve."  DOD is "critical to national security, but so are the FBI, Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and many other federal agencies that help keep Americans safe."

The bill authorizes $515 billion for DOD plus another $89.2 billion for OCO, a total of $604.2 billion.  The amount for OCO is $38 billion more than the President's request.  Reed noted that if OCO were an agency, it would be the "second largest agency in the discretionary budget, trailing only" DOD itself, and one of every six dollars in the bill "is counted off the books."

On Tuesday, as FY2015 was coming to an end and Congress had to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating, President Obama, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced they are ready to begin negotiations on a two-year budget deal to avoid the threat of any government shutdowns through the 2016 elections.  Boehner is resigning from Congress at the end of October, though, complicating an already difficult negotiating process.

The CR expires on December 11, so some type of appropriations action will have to be taken by then or the government will indeed face another shutdown. President Obama said during a White House news conference today, however, that he will not sign another short-term CR and the 10 weeks between now and December 11 need to be used "effectively."

Discharge Petition Could Be Next Step for Ex-Im Bank Reauthorization

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Oct-2015 (Updated: 02-Oct-2015 12:36 AM)

Supporters of the Export-Import Bank may try a new tactic to put the institution back in business -- National Journal is reporting that a discharge petition may be filed to get the issue out of committee and to the House floor.  Advocates have often said that a majority of House members support the bank, but the House Republican leadership is preventing them from having a chance to vote on it.

The Bank helps provide financing for U.S. exports, including communications satellites, for example.  Created in 1934, its charter must be periodically reauthorized by Congress, something done routinely over the decades.  This year, however, the reauthorization has been a matter of bitter debate. The issue splits the Republican and Democratic parties with some members of each insisting that the bank is essential to U.S. exports and therefore to U.S. jobs, while others assert it is corporate welfare for a few big companies.  Boeing is often mentioned in the latter regard.  Advocates claim that small and medium size businesses also benefit not only because of their own projects, but because many are suppliers to the big companies.

The Bank's authorization expired on June 30 after an attempt to reauthorize it failed.  Another attempt in July met the same fate.   The Bank currently cannot make new loans, only administer those already in force.

Boeing chairman, W. James McNerney, Jr said in July that the whole point of the Bank is to level the playing field with foreign competitors and If there will be no U.S. Ex-Im Bank, "we are actively considering now moving key pieces of our company to other countries and we never would have considered it before this craziness on Ex-Im." He called it "the triumph of ideology over any description of private business."   Boeing is the biggest beneficiary by dollars, he agreed, but not by transactions:  "There are more deals for small and medium size companies than big companies.  The congressional situation is a "sign of dysfunctionality" when two-thirds of the House and of the Senate support reauthorization, but legislation cannot pass because of the "extremes" of the two parties.

Boeing and Orbital ATK reportedly have lost satellite business already because of the inability of the Bank to make new loans.

In the House, the challenge has been that the chairman of the Financial Services Committee, Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX), supported by members of the House leadership, opposes the bank and has not moved legislation out of his committee to reauthorize it. 

National Journal reports tonight, however, that Rep. Stephen Fincher (R-TN) is planning to use a procedure called a discharge petition to move a bill out of that committee and to the floor of the House for a vote.  As explained in a Congressional Research Service report, a discharge petition requires 218 signatures.  Signing a discharge petition might be viewed as an affront to House leadership, making it a difficult decision for Republican members and at least 30 Republican signatures would be needed if all 188 Democrats signed (and there is no guarantee of that).

House rules (Rule XV, clause 2) establish time periods for when discharge petitions may be filed and when they may be considered on the floor, so it could take some time for this to play out.  It is possible that outgoing Speaker John Boehner could decide to bring a bill to the floor and avoid the need for a discharge petition that could pit Republicans against Republicans.  If not, this will be one more issue to land in the lap of his successor.

Even if the bill does pass the House, it still, of course, must pass the Senate where the issue is equally divisive.

NASA Picks Two Venus, Three Asteroid Missions As Discovery Semifinalists

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Sep-2015 (Updated: 30-Sep-2015 07:10 PM)

NASA announced the five proposals that it has selected for further development under the Discovery program in the Planetary Science Division.  Two would study Venus, while the other three would study asteroids.  One newsworthy aspect of the announcement is that four of the five principal investigators are women.

Discovery missions are mid-sized missions with a cost cap of $500 million not including launch or post-launch operations.  The program was initiated in 1992 to provide regular opportunities for scientists to compete to develop and launch planetary exploration missions. The missions not only are cost capped, but the development time from mission start to launch can be no more than 36 months.  The goal is to launch a Discovery mission at least every two years, though that is budget dependent.

NASA has launched 11 Discovery missions so far and a 12th, InSight, is scheduled for launch next year.  They span a range of research interests.  The first Discovery mission, NEAR, was the first spacecraft to orbit an asteroid (Eros).  The most recent, InSight, will land on Mars to study the structure of its interior by using a seismometer and heat flow package.  Among the 10 in between were spacecraft that studied the Moon, Mercury, and a comet nucleus, and two returned samples of interstellar dust and atoms of the solar wind.  Perhaps the best known today is Kepler, which searched for -- and found -- exoplanets.

The five selected today will receive $3 million each to further develop their plans.  One of the five will be chosen for full development in September 2016.  They are:

  • DAVINCI.   Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry and Imaging.   Principal Investigator: Lori Glaze, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.  Goddard would manage the project.
  • VERITAS.  Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission.  Principal Investigator: Suzanne Smrekar, JPL.  JPL would manage the project.
  • Psyche.  A mission to explore the origin of planetary cores by studying the metallic asteroid Psyche that "is likely the survivor of a violent hit-and-run with another object."  Principal Investigator: Linda Elkins-Tanton, Arizona State University.  JPL would manage the project.
  • NEOCam.  Near Earth Object Camera, to discover asteroids and comets, generically called Near Earth Objects (NEOs).  Principal Investigator:  Amy Mainzer, JPL. JPL would manage the project.
  • Lucy.  A mission to perform the first reconnaissance of the Jupiter Trojan asteroids.  Principal Investigator:  Harold Levison, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder.  Goddard would manage the project.

Congress Passes Short-Term Continuing Resolution for FY2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Sep-2015 (Updated: 30-Sep-2015 07:11 PM)

First the Senate and then the House passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) today to keep the government operating tomorrow when FY2016 begins.  The CR lasts through December 11, 2015.

The Senate vote was 78-20.  All 20 no votes were Republicans.  Republican presidential candidates Cruz and Paul voted no, while Graham and Rubio did not vote.  The 78 yes votes were 32 Republicans, all 44 Democrats, and both Independents.  Democratic presidential candidate Sanders (who is an independent in the Senate) voted yes.  The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee (who also chairs a subcommittee) and 6 other subcommittee chairs voted yes, and 4 voted no, including Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) who chairs the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA.  One (Graham) did not vote.

The House vote was 277-151.  All 151 no votes were Republicans.  All 186 Democrats who voted and 91 Republicans voted yes.    The chairman of the full appropriations committee, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) and nine of the 12 subcommittee chairs voted yes. Two voted no.  One, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee, did not vote.

Congress is using the TSA Office of Inspection Accountability Act, H.R. 719, as the legislative vehicle for the FY2016 CR.   The operative part for the CR is Senate Amendment 2689 (SA 2689). 

Agencies are funded at their FY2015 levels except that there is an across-the-board 0.2108 percent reduction to ensure the total does not exceed agreed upon budget caps.

The President is expected to sign the bill, keeping the government open until December 11.  What will happen at that point is anyone's guess.

House and Senate Agree on FY2016 NDAA, RD-180s Still Restricted

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Sep-2015 (Updated: 29-Sep-2015 10:51 PM)

The House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC and SASC) announced agreement today on a compromise version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-CA) said that he expects the bill to reach the floor of the House for debate on Thursday.  One thorny space-related issue, on use of Russian RD-180 rocket engines, was resolved largely in the Senate's favor.

Broadly speaking, the House, Senate, Air Force, DOD, and United Launch Alliance (ULA) agree that the United States should not rely on Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites.   ULA was created in 2006 as a joint venture between Lockheed Martin and Boeing and has been essentially a monopoly launch services provider to the national security community since then.  ULA's Atlas V rocket uses Russian RD-180 engines.  From an engineering standpoint, the RD-180 apparently is an excellent engine and users are reluctant to give it up.

However, the advent of "new entrants" like SpaceX into the launch vehicle market, and the deterioration in the U.S.-Russian relationship following Russia's actions in Ukraine, marked a paradigm shift in the U.S. launch vehicle industry last year.   SASC chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) has been particularly strident in his views that the United States should not be paying money to Russia for rocket engines that goes into the pockets of "cronies" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  He also strongly supports the entry of SpaceX as a competitor to ULA.   

In last year's FY2015 NDAA, Congress set 2019 as a deadline for when RD-180s should be replaced by a new domestic rocket engine for national security launches (the provision does not affect the use of Russian engines for commercial or other government launches).  Flexibility was provided by giving the Secretary of Defense waiver authority to certify that additional Russian engines were needed for national security purposes, but the Air Force and DOD have been fighting to get the 2019 deadline extended to 2022 to 2023.  They argue that while a new U.S. engine could be ready by 2019, it would take several years to integrate it into a new rocket and certify the rocket for launching expensive, vital national security satellites.  HASC has been more sympathetic to that view than SASC.

The Senate version of the FY2016 NDAA kept the 2019 deadline and said only nine more RD-180 engines could be obtained.  The House version provided substantial flexibility by expanding the Secretary of Defense's waiver authority.

The compromise version announced today mostly adopts the Senate language.  At a press conference today, McCain vehemently reiterated his opposition to paying Russia for RD-180 engines and his support for SpaceX.  He said that SpaceX asserts that it can have a domestic engine ready to replace the RD-180s by 2017.  The compromise still allows the use of nine more RD-180s, he said, as his committee recommended.  He added, though, that the language does allow more to be purchased if needed "but to commit to 6-7 [more] years is not something I'm prepared to do."  He criticized the ULA-Air Force relationship on this issue as a "classic example of the military-industrial complex."

In a separate press conference, the four Republican and Democratic leaders of HASC and SASC also addressed the issue.  Thornberry said "we want to wean ourselves off of Russian engines as soon as possible and have assured access to space as we do it" and that is what the compromise language does.  HASC ranking member Adam Smith (D-WA) added that "I think we're going to get to a good place sooner than most people realize," but stressed that  "we don't want just one alternative" to the RD-180s. There are companies out there, a number of them happen to be in the State of Washington, as a matter of fact, Blue Origin, Aerojet, bunch of other folks, and they'll get there sooner than we expect. Still, "we can't ... count on that and say that we can't buy the only thing that's actually available."  The language in the bill ensures DOD "has good choices," he remarked, but also pushes "domestic industry to quickly develop an alternative domestically."

Blue Origin and Aerojet Rocketdyne are competitors in developing a new engine for ULA's planned Vulcan rocket that will eventually replace both the Altas V and Delta IV, ULA's other rocket.   ULA and Blue Origin announced a partnership last fall where ULA said it would use Blue Origin's BE-4 engine for Vulcan.  The BE-4 is an innovative design that uses methane (liquefied natural gas) and liquid oxygen (LOX) as propellant.    ULA said this spring, however, that it is also considering a traditional LOX/kerosene engine being developed by Aerojet Rocketdyne, the AR1, and will make a choice between them next year. Blue Origin is headquartered in Kent, Washington and Sacramento-based Aerojet Rocketdyne has a major facility in Redmond, Washington.  Aerojet Rocketdyne is trying to buy ULA, adding further complexity to the outlook for the U.S. launch services market.

ULA and Blue Origin said last fall that the BE-4 engine is fully funded and no government funds are required, although ULA President Tory Bruno said this spring that he certainly would not turn down government help.   Aerojet Rocketdyne has indicated that it does need government funds.   The compromise version of the NDAA authorizes $184.4 million.

The NDAA is an authorization, not appropriations, bill, so its funding levels only are recommendations.   Democrats still want a grand deal on replacing sequestration, and not only for defense, but for domestic priorities as well.  They object to a maneuver Republicans are using for FY2016 defense spending by putting money into an off-budget account, Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO), to get around the existing budget caps.  McCain and Thornberry argue that since the NDAA is only an authorization bill, that debate should not derail this bill.   SASC ranking Democrat Jack Reed (D-RI), said at the press conference today, however, that he would oppose the bill on those grounds.

NASA Cheers Mars Water Discovery--Clinton Agrees, Limbaugh Not So Much

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2015 (Updated: 28-Sep-2015 11:23 PM)

NASA announced another discovery about water on Mars today.  High resolution data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) shows that water "is flowing today" on the surface of Mars.   Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton tweeted a congratulatory response while conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh denigrated it as part of a left wing agenda.

The findings today are from data taken by the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE) instrument on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO).  Although MRO has been circling Mars since 2006, it has made high resolution images of only 3-4 percent of the planet.  In that high resolution data, scientists have discovered downhill streaks called "recurring slope lineae" (RSL).  Speculation has existed for some time that they are related to liquid water. 

Georgia Tech's Lujendra Ojha, lead author of a paper published today in Nature Geoscience, has spent years studying RSLs.  He said today that for the first time the liquid-water formation hypothesis for RSLs is unambiguous.

NASA advertised today's announcement as "Mars Mystery Solved," and Ojha's comments echo that, but other officials were more cautious.  NASA Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld said it "appears" to confirm that water "is flowing today on the surface of Mars."  HiRISE principle investigator Alfred McEwen of the University of Arizona Lunar and Planetary Institute clarified that the water is not exactly "flowing."  He described it as "thin layers of wet soils, not standing water."  The water is very salty, much more so than Earth's oceans, he said.

NASA has made a number of announcements about finding water on Mars.   The topic is important not only for determining whether Mars might have conditions where life may have developed in the past, but also to support humans who may someday travel there in the future.  Grunsfeld, a scientist and former astronaut who champions sending people to Mars, wore his flight suit at the press conference today to underscore that these findings are all part of NASA's "Journey to Mars."   The Obama Administration's policy is to send humans to orbit Mars in the 2030s, although NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden often says that humans will land on the planet in that time frame.  Landing is substantially more difficult, as is ascending back into space to return home.

Political reaction to the news was generally positive.   House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said it "reminds us why we must remain committed to American space leadership and Mars exploration."   Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), ranking member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, tweeted that it "boosts the likelihood of humans one day being able to live there." 

Clinton, who earlier expressed her strong support of NASA, said it showed there are no limits to what can be discovered.

One conservative commentator had quite a different view, however.  Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh called it part of a left wing agenda.  Asserting that NASA has been "corrupted by the current regime," he continued --  "Don't know how long it's going to take, but this news ... is somehow going to find its way into a technique to advance the leftist agenda.  I don't know what it is, I would assume it would be something to do with global warming and you can - maybe there was once an advanced civilization.  If they say they found flowing water, next they're going to find a graveyard."

U.S., China Hold First Civil Space Dialogue Meeting - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2015 (Updated: 30-Sep-2015 04:59 AM)

UPDATED September 30, 2015 with information about NASA's participation.

Details are scant, but the State Department announced that the first meeting of the U.S.-China Dialogue on Civil Space Cooperation was held today (September 28, 2015) in Beijing. 

In a media note, the State Department said the meeting "launches a new initiative to enhance cooperation between the two countries and provide better transparency on a variety of space related topics."  Among the topics discussed today were the countries' respective space policies, space debris and the long term sustainability of outer space activities, and ways to cooperate on civil Earth observation activities, space sciences, space weather, and Global Navigation Satellite Systems (GNSS).  

Another meeting will be held in Washington, D.C. in 2016.

The meeting was chaired by the State Department and the China National Space Administration.   The media note did not identify which U.S. government agencies participated, but NASA spokesman Allard Beutel confirmed via email on September 29 that NASA was one of the participants.

The decision to inaugurate this "Dialogue" was announced in June following the seventh round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue.  Chinese President Xi Jinping just visited the United States, with a White House meeting with President Obama on September 25.  The State Department's statement today did not mention Xi's visit, however, and this meeting was in Beijing, not Washington.

NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy are prohibited by law from engaging with China on bilateral space activities unless they get advance approval from Congress.

This article will be updated if more information becomes available.

Senate Advances CR; Shutdown Fears All But Over -- For Now

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2015 (Updated: 28-Sep-2015 08:51 PM)

The Senate advanced a Continuing Resolution (CR) to fund the government through December 11, 2015 today, all but ending fears of a government shutdown on October 1.  House Speaker John Boehner's surprise announcement on Friday that he is stepping down sharply diminished the chances of an October 1 shutdown, but may make a December shutdown instead more likely.

By a vote of 77-19, the Senate agreed to let the CR move forward.  A final vote is expected tomorrow.   It is a "clean" bill without a policy rider sought by some ultra-conservative Republicans to defund Planned Parenthood. 

Assuming the Senate approves the bill tomorrow, it will go to the House where the betting today is that it will pass.  Now that he has announced his departure on October 30,  Boehner is more free to focus on his goal of keeping the government operating rather than negotiating with the right-wing of his party that vowed not to vote for any bill that did not defund Planned Parenthood. 

Boehner and his Senate counterpart, Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), have been saying all year that they will not permit another government shutdown like the one in 2013.  In that case, Tea Party Republicans led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) refused to agree to a bill that did not repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).  After 16 days, Boehner decided to reopen the government by going against that wing of his party and using Democratic votes to pass the bill.   It is widely expected that he will do the same when this Senate bill reaches the House tomorrow or Wednesday.  

Congress must pass an appropriations bill by midnight Wednesday, the last day of FY2015, in order for the government to open for business on Thursday, the first day of FY2016.

The bill has not passed yet, however, and it is unwise to heave a sigh of relief until it does.  Even then, it may be short-lived.   Boehner is leaving on October 30 and a new Speaker will have to deal with the same forces in the Republican party to get appropriations passed for the rest of the fiscal year.  House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) formally announced his candidacy for Speaker today and many consider him the odds-on favorite, but Tea Party challengers are expected.

Whoever wins, the issues are likely to remain the same, so this is just kicking the can down the road.  For those worried about whether the government will be open on Thursday, however, it is good news.

NASA Terminates Space Act Agreement with B612 Foundation for Sentinel Spacecraft

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Sep-2015 (Updated: 30-Sep-2015 06:26 PM)

NASA has terminated its unfunded Space Act Agreement (SAA) with the B612 Foundation.  The Foundation is trying to raise private funds to build a spacecraft, Sentinel, to hunt for asteroids.  B612 says that they are proceeding with their efforts uninterrupted despite the termination.

The B612 Foundation's goal is to "enhance our capability to protect Earth from asteroid impacts."   Its CEO, Ed Lu, and Chair Emeritus, Rusty Schweickert, are both former astronauts and have focused for many years on raising awareness of the threats posed to Earth by asteroids and trying to find solutions to address that threat.  One of the challenges is finding out where the Earth-threatening asteroids are and while NASA has ground-based programs to achieve that objective, B612 argues that only a spacecraft with infrared sensors in a "Venus-trailing" orbit would have the field of view necessary to really answer that question.

The B612 Foundation is named after the asteroid in the children's story The Little Prince.

NASA is not currently planning to build a dedicated asteroid-hunting spacecraft, although it did re-purpose its earth-orbiting Wide-Field Infrared Explorer (WISE) satellite to focus on asteroid detection in 2013.  Launched in 2009, WISE was designed to image the entire sky in the infrared band using super-cooled detectors.  It completed its primary mission in September 2010 after exhausting the coolant and was decommissioned, but NASA later determined some of the instruments could still be useful in searching for asteroids.  Renamed the Near-Earth Object Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer, NEOWISE, it began a three-year observation program in 2013. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is proposing NEOCam, another asteroid-hunting mission, as part of the the Discovery 14 selection process, though competition is stiff and it is far from clear whether it will be chosen as one of semi-finalists from among the 16 proposers, a decision expected soon.  It was also proposed in 2006 and 2010.

WISE/NEOWISE was built by Ball Aerospace, which is partnered with B612 on the Sentinel mission (and would also be the prime contractor for NEOCam if it is selected). 

B612 is trying to fund the Sentinel mission privately, using mostly philanthropic donations although anyone may contribute. 

The nonreimbursable NASA-B612 Foundation agreement was signed by NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier and Associate Administrator for Science John Grunsfeld on May 31, 2012.  B612 CEO Ed Lu signed it on June 19, 2012 and was to be in effect for 10 years from that date.   Its primary purpose was obtaining NASA technical consulting and agreement for B612 to use NASA tracking facilities for Sentinel after it was launched.  In return, B612 would keep NASA informed of the spacecraft's technical characteristics and progress and deliver data from the spacecraft to the Minor Planet Center.  

The milestones identified in the agreement were:

  • Sentinel mission contract start date with Ball, November 2012
  • Preliminary design review, October 2013
  • Critical Design Review, October 2014
  • Launch, December 2016

NASA spokesmen Dwayne Brown and Dave Steitz confirmed via email that NASA terminated the agreement with B612.  Steitz explained that B612 had not met an important milestone in the SAA -- starting Sentinel's development -- and NASA therefore terminated the agreement because "due to limited resources, NASA can no longer afford to reserve funds" to support the project.  "NASA believes it is in the best interest of both parties to terminate this agreement but remains open to future opportunities to collaborate with the B612 Foundation," he added.

B612 Vice President for Communications Diane Murphy also confirmed the termination, but said NASA had invited them to return to obtain another SAA when Sentinel's launch date is closer.   She noted that "our timeline is dependent on our fundraising -- and while that is going well - it is hard ... and taking longer than we first anticipated."   She provided a statement from Lu asserting that the "status of the SAA in no way changes the resolve of the B612 Foundation to move forward. ... We will continue to work independently and together with NASA, the US Congress and others to see our goals realized."

UPDATE: An earlier version of this story said there would be three semi finalists in the Discovery selection, but there were five.  They were announced on September 30.  NEOCam is one of those five.



What's Happening in Space Policy September 28-October 2, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Sep-2015 (Updated: 26-Sep-2015 06:03 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 28-October 2, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

This is it!   The week when FY2016 begins -- ready or not.   The House and Senate have until Wednesday, September 30, at midnight to pass, and for the President to sign, a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open.   House Speaker John Boehner's surprising announcement on Friday that he will resign as Speaker and from his House seat on October 30 is widely expected to make it easier to get a CR in place.  He can worry less about placating the right wing conservatives in his party who are refusing to vote for a CR unless it defunds Planned Parenthood and use Democratic votes to get the CR through the House.   While that is good news in the short term, the CR is only expected to last through December, so the proverbial can is just being kicked down the road into the lap of whoever becomes the next Speaker.  But it's best to take one crisis at a time and perhaps the country will be able to get through this one less painfully than expected.  But it's never over till the fat lady sings.  Predicting what Congress will do is a risky undertaking, as Boehner's announcement proves.

The Senate is expected to pass a clean CR (without any policy riders like defunding Planned Parenthood) early in the week.  It is using the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) Office of Inspection Accountability Act (H.R. 719) as the legislative vehicle for the CR.  A cloture motion is expected on Monday at 5:30 pm ET.  (Congress often uses an unrelated bill that is already through most of the legislative process as a vehicle for a CR or omnibus appropriations since it speeds things up.)

Amidst all the appropriations drama, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on astrobiology on Tuesday.  It originally was scheduled for June 23, but postponed when the House recessed to allow members to attend the funerals in Charleston, S.C. after the mass shooting there.

As if Washington politics isn't exciting enough, NASA apparently has something intriguing of its own to announce on Monday.  It's not saying exactly what, but at 11:30 am ET there will be a press conference where a "Mars mystery" will be solved.   Lots of speculation on Twitter and elsewhere as to what it will be, but we won't spoil the surprise.

Speaking of Mars, another BIG EVENT this week will be the theater release of The Martian on October 2.  In the unlikely event you haven't heard about the movie, based on the book by Andy Weir, it's about an astronaut who gets stranded on Mars.   NASA has been going all out to advertise the film and a panel discussion at Kennedy Space Center (KSC) on Thursday -- So You Want to be a Martian -- includes two of the actors in the film, Mackenzie Davis and Chiwetel Ejiofor.   KSC Director Bob Cabana, who is also on the panel, clearly is hoping that Congress does, in fact, pass that CR so KSC will be open for business that day (October 1).

Those and other events we know about as of Saturday afternoon are listed below.   Check back throughout the week for updates on the calendar on the right side of our main page.

Sunday-Friday, September 27-October 2

Monday-Tuesday, September 28-29

Tuesday, September 29

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 29-30

Thursday, October 1

Friday, October 2

  • Movie "The Martian" theatrical release, check local listings