Commercial Space News
Patti Grace Smith called on Congress last week to extend the FAA’s authority to provide third party indemnification for commercial launch services companies for 10 years or, better yet, permanently.
After lengthy debate last year, Congress extended the indemnification authority for only one year – through December 31, 2013 -- so the topic is back on the table for consideration this year.
Smith was a witness at a May 16 Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on advancing partnerships in the business of space. Much of the hearing focused on the nexus between government and commercial space activities in future human space exploration, but she also raised narrower issues important to the commercial space launch industry.
A former head of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), she is now a consultant to the commercial space industry and chairs the Commercial Space Committee of the NASA Advisory Council. She also advised the subcommittee that AST should remain a part of the FAA rather than reporting directly to the Secretary of Transportation as it did when it was created in 1984. She believes that by keeping the office within the FAA, aviation officials are forced to deal with questions about how to integrate commercial space launches into the National Airspace System (NAS) rather than ignoring them.
Eventually AST should “take its rightful, its logical place as another transportation mode” separate from the FAA, but in her view it is better situated within the FAA for now.
Prepared statements of the witnesses and a webcast of the hearing are available on the committee’s website.
Former NASA space shuttle program manager Wayne Hale told the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science and Space Thursday that it is difficult for his generation to change its “mental model” of the NASA-funded Apollo program as the way for humans to explore space. The reality today, he stressed, is that the government and the commercial sector must team together and leverage each other’s capabilities because taxpayers are only willing to spend half-a-percent of the federal budget on NASA, not the 3-4 percent in the Apollo era.
Hale, currently the Director of Human Spaceflight for Special Aerospace Services, was responding to a question from Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) at a May 16 hearing on advancing partnerships in the business of space. As the hearing came to a close, Nelson wanted to know why it is so hard to get people to understand that commercial space activities will “collaborate, supplement, enhance” NASA’s program to send humans beyond low Earth orbit (LEO).
Patti Grace Smith, former FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and now a consultant, agreed that people still associate space activities with NASA and not the private sector even though commercial space launches date back to the 1980s. “Where we sit is what we know,” she said, and because NASA holds the reputation as “the premier space agency,” it has been challenging to get people to accept that commercial space can succeed. That perception is changing, she added, with NASA’s new partnerships with the commercial sector and the successful flight of SpaceShipOne in 2004.
Whether the slowly changing paradigm will help win support for NASA’s FY2014 request of $831 million for the commercial crew program, however, is an open question as Nelson made clear. He said that he and Ranking Member Ted Cruz (R-TX) will be working on a new NASA authorization act this year and “in the past, it sure has been difficult to get people to recognize” the value and necessity of the commercial and government space sectors partnering together in human space exploration.
Many in Congress are determined to restore a U.S. capability for launching people into space by 2017, but have not provided NASA with the requested funds for its approach to achieving that goal – the commercial crew program. The $831 million request is more than $300 million above what Congress provided for FY2013. Finding that extra money will not be easy, especially since policy issues such as how many companies to support have not been settled and some influential Members remain highly skeptical of commercial crew overall. The alternative would be using the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, but that system is oversized (and thus expensive) for ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).
More generally, Hale connected the dots between today’s commercial crew and cargo efforts to support the ISS and the longer term future of human space exploration. ISS itself is crucial for testing technologies needed for long duration spaceflight and ISS needs commercial cargo and commercial crew, he said. For missions to the Moon and Mars, the key will be logistics, he continued, quoting Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf as saying “armchair generals study tactics, real generals study logistics.” Lowering the cost of getting mass into LEO will be crucial to supplying logistics for long duration flights beyond LEO. “Getting mass to [LEO] is halfway to anywhere in the universe. And if we can supply equipment, fuel, even crews cheaply to [LEO] that has got to be a vital link in ensuring that whatever deep space” missions are mounted will be successful. “Low cost transportation enables all of that. That’s what we’re all about in the commercial space enterprises.”
Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Michael Lopez-Alegria was asked about the size of the market for suborbital and orbital commercial human space flight, or space tourism as it often is called. He cited a 2012 report by The Tauri Group that the suborbital market could be $600 million over the next decade, but said there is no equivalent study of the orbital market. He is convinced a sizeable market will develop, but could not say when: “It’s hard to predict markets that don’t exist yet, but … all I can say, like the famous movie quote … ‘build it and they will come.’”
Lopez-Alegria, a former astronaut who made four trips to space, including commanding the ISS, argued strongly in favor of the commercial crew program as well as extending ISS operations to 2028. Currently the United States and its ISS partners (Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada) have agreed to operate it only until 2020, though NASA believes it technically could remain operational through 2028, 30 years after the first module was launched.
Purdue University’s Steven Collicott testified about the research opportunities enabled by commercial suborbital vehicles, noting that Purdue has a down payment on a spot on a Virgin Galactic flight. The university does not plan to fly a person, but “200 pounds of automated payload to advance high-tech Indiana industry.” He also is building payloads to fly on suborbital systems offered by Armadillo, Blue Origin, Masten, and XCOR, as well as a high altitude balloon company, Near Space. He believes these types of flight opportunities will encourage students to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
Smith also argued for extending the FAA's authority to indemnify commercial space launch services companies against certain amounts of losses if there is an accident for at least 10 years, and for keeping AST within the FAA for the time being.
Prepared statements of the witnesses and a webcast of the hearing are on the committee's website.
The following space policy events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Among the highlights of the coming week are congressional hearings on NASA and NOAA and House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee markups of the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act.
A House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) subcommittee will hold a hearing on Tuesday on Next Steps in Human Exploration of Space that seems focused on the new asteroid retrieval mission proposed in NASA's FY2014 budget request.
Another House SS&T subcommittee will hold a hearing on Thursday on how to restore U.S. leadership in weather forecasting, a NOAA responsibility, though it is hard to tell how much of that will focus on weather satellites rather than computer models. Later that morning the Senate Commerce committee will hold its nomination hearing for Penny Pritzker to be the new Secretary of Commerce. The Department of Commerce is NOAA's parent agency and it also is one of the two cabinet level departments responsible for export controls (State Department is the other), so is a critical participant in implementing the export control reforms required under last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Rumors were rampant that the draft regulations for reforming satellite export controls would be published in the Federal Register last week, but that did not happen; perhaps they will be issued this week. That is just one step in the lengthy regulatory process that many hope will result in commercial satellites no longer being subject to the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) under the State Department's Munitions List.
All of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittees will markup their respective portions of the FY2014 NDAA this week. The Strategic Forces subcommittee, which is responsible for most military space programs, will hold its markup on Wednesday. Full committee markup is scheduled for June 5. (The Senate Armed Services Committee markups are scheduled for June 11-12.)
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The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Perhaps the most intriguing event this week is Thursday's House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee's Oversight Subcommittee hearing on "Espionage Threats at Federal Laboratories: Balancing Scientific Cooperation While Protecting Critical Information." No NASA witnesses are on the list, but it would be surprising if the agency is not a subject of discussion.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) made headlines earlier this year with allegations that a Chinese national, Bo Jiang, was stealing secrets from NASA's Langely Research Center. Jiang was arrested, but later exonerated of a felony charge of lying to federal investigators. Wolf has raised concerns for some time about alleged improprieties regarding ITAR-controlled information at NASA's Ames Research Center. Wolf chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and works closely with House SS&T Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) on this issue. They jointly sent a letter to the FBI and to the Department of Justice Inspector General about their concerns about NASA-Ames this spring (links to the letters are on Rep. Wolf's website). Witnesses on Thursday are Chuck Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering (and President Emeritus of MIT); Larry Wortzel, chairman of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (and former Asian Studies Center director at the Heritage Foundation); Michelle Van Cleave, Senior Research Fellow at George Washington University's Homeland Security Policy Institute (she was the National Counterintelligence Executive in the George W. Bush Administration and once was a staffer on the House SS&T Committee); and David Major of the Centre for Counterintelligence and Security Studies (a retired FBI agent, his company trains people in counterintelligence and related topics). Should be interesting!
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Orbital Sciences Corporation announced today that it is targeting the August/September time frame for its next test flight of the Antares rocket as part of NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The test flight will take a Cygnus spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS).
That is a slip of about a month from the previously announced late June/early July schedule to allow the company time to replace one of the rocket's AJ-26 engines. Then it must wait its turn to visit the ISS. A Japanese HTV flight is already scheduled for August and if it goes as planned, Antares/Cygnus will have to wait until September. If HTV is delayed, however, Orbital said it would be ready in August. Like Cygnus, HTV is an automated cargo spacecraft.
Orbital said detailed analysis of data from the first Antares test flight on April 21 confirmed that "the inaugural ... flight really was as good as it looked." However, the company is exchanging one of the AJ26 engines on the next Antares rocket's first stage for one that "is already tested in order to further inspect and confirm a seal is functioning properly."
UPDATE: Adds another hearing on the FY2014 Air Force budget request; this one by Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on Wednesday.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Sending people to Mars is one theme of the upcoming week. A three-day "summit" sponsored by ExploreMars and George Washington University's (GWU) Space Policy Institute will be held at GWU's Lisner Auditorum on Monday-Wednesday. This is also the week that Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin releases his new book, Mission to Mars, written with veteran space journalist Leonard David. There are events throughout the week related to release of the book. In Washington, there are events on Wednesday and Thursday nights at the National Geographic, and on Friday at the National Press Club.
The search for other Earths -- exoplanets -- will be the topic of a hearing by two subcommittees of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee on Thursday. On a more prosaic level, two hearings on the Air Force's FY2014 budget request will be held on Tuesday and Thursday.
Monday-Wednesday, May 6-8
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Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (SS2) fired its rocket engines in flight for the first time today, bringing the company a step closer to flying commercial passengers on suborbital space voyages.
Nine years ago, SpaceShipOne entered the history books by winning the Ansari X Prize as the first non-government piloted vehicle to reach an altitude of 100 kilometers -- an internationally recognized altitude of where space begins (there is no legal definition), return to Earth, and repeat the feat within seven days. The rocket powered vehicle is dropped from an aircraft called WhiteKnight and was developed by Burt Rutan's Scaled Composites in Mojave, CA in partnership with Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
Sir Richard Branson, head of the Virgin Group, licensed the technology to create a commercial venture called Virgin Galactic, which now includes Abu Dhabi's aabar Investments PJC. Suborbital flights on Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo were expected to begin years ago. Branson said today's success "opens the way for a rapid expansion of the spaceship's powered flight envelope, with a very realistic goal of full space flight by the year's end."
In today's test, the mother aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo, carried SS2 to 47,000 feet, where it was released and the SS2 pilots, Mark Stucky and Mike Alsbury, fired the rocket engine. The engine firing itself lasted for 16 seconds, allowing 10 minutes of rocket-powered flight during which SS2 broke the sound barrier, reaching Mach 1.2 and an altitude of 55,000 feet before returning to Earth for landing. A video of the release and rocket firing is on YouTube.
Virgin Galactic President and CEO George Whitesides said a "handful" of similar tests will be conducted before the first test flight to space.
Editor's Note: The original video that was posted on YouTube was replaced by a corrected one later in the day. The link above is to the corrected video.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate both are in recess this week.
During the Week
After an intense two weeks, the upcoming week will be much more relaxed as members of the House and Senate work in their State and district offices instead of Washington. So we will have a chance to catch our breaths. There are a few events of interest, though.
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A House Armed Services Committee (HASC) subcommittee asked a Defense of Department (DOD) official on Thursday if he knew of DOD leasing any commercial satellite services from companies with significant ownership by the People's Republic of China. The somewhat surprising answer was "yes."
The question came as part of a hearing by the HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee on the FY2014 budget request for national security space activities. Witnesses were DOD's new Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy, Doug Loverro; DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary, Space and Intelligence Office, Gil Klinger; Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. William Shelton; and Director of the National Reconnaissance Office, Betty Sapp.
Most of the hearing discussed familiar issues such as DOD's launch services procurement strategy and the role of Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) -- Delta IV and Atlas V, offered by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) -- versus "new entrants" like SpaceX. Shelton reiterated what he has said in other venues that DOD is procuring 50 new core launch vehicles, 36 of which will be assigned to ULA while the other 14 are open for competition to certified providers including ULA. New entrants like SpaceX are still working on becoming certified under DOD's criteria.
The launch vehicle debate has been ongoing for several years. What was new at Thursday's hearing was the revelation that DOD is leasing commercial satellite communications services from a company partially owned by China. Many House Republicans are opposed to civilian space cooperation with China and the law prohibits NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) from spending any money in connection with China unless certain conditions are met. No similar restrictions have been placed on DOD, however.
Loverro told the subcommittee that he became aware of the leases when he assumed his new job about a month ago. He did not specify what satellite it is, but explained that an operational commander needed services in a particular area of operations and that was the only satellite with the necessary bandwidth. All the correct procedures were followed, including a security review, in putting the lease together, he insisted. The operational commander understood the situation and the encryption that would be required, but the bottom line is that warfighters need support and "sometimes we must go to ... the only place we can get it from." The Defense Information Services Agency (DISA), which is responsible for procuring communications services for DOD, went out to its suppliers and "only one provider had the bandwidth" to meet the need and it was "on a Chinese satellite," Loverro explained.
The larger issue, he said, is that there is no clear DOD policy on how to make such decisions. He is working with DISA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff now to develop a process, but could not provide details because "we just decided to do this literally a week-and-a-half ago."
Members of a House subcommittee expressed concern on a bipartisan basis today about NASA's new asteroid retrieval mission as well as whether NASA will get the resources needed to fund responsibilities transferred from other agencies if the FY2014 budget request is approved.
The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee heard from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about the FY2014 NASA budget request. Questions focused on four major areas of concern.
At one point, Smith asked Bolden about new problems in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program. Bolden insisted at first that he is briefed on JWST weekly and the program is on track. Smith then read from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week that identified 11 month delays in two JWST instruments and other issues. Bolden clearly was taken by surprise. GAO says "JWST is currently experiencing technical issues" including the spacecraft being overweight and "two instruments will be delivered at least 11 months late." NASA officials in other forums have emphasized that the re-baselined program has sufficient schedule and funding reserves to cope with any problems that arise and still maintain the 2018 launch schedule. It is surprising, however, that Bolden apparently had not been briefed on the GAO report.
NASA's budget request, like that of the other Executive Branch agencies, assumes that sequestration will be replaced by another method of deficit reduction. Edwards asked Bolden what will happen if that does not happen and sequestration continues. Bolden replied: "to be candid, all bets are off" if sequestration remains the law of the land.