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Commercial Space News

No Good News for FAA Space Office in FY2018 Request

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2017 (Updated: 25-May-2017 02:41 AM)

After successfully fighting to get a budget boost in FY2017, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is back to the drawing board in the Trump Administration's FY2018 request.  The office won a $2 million increase to $19.8 million in FY2017, but the FY2018 request is back down to $17.9 billion. The FAA's budget request also includes funding for a space traffic management pilot project.

Advocates for AST have insisted for years that more resources -- money and people -- are needed for the office to keep pace with the growth in the commercial space launch sector.  AST regulates, facilitates and promotes that industry.

Mike Gold chairs AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), whose members are representatives of commercial space companies.  Gold told in an interview today that one issue on which all of COMSTAC's members agree is that AST needs more funding.  He noted that it is rare when companies actually ask that more money be allocated to their government regulators, but inadequate resources could "lead to needless delays, create regulatory bottlenecks and stifle innovation."

Mike Gold, Chairman, COMSTAC. Photo credit:  FAA website.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is another strong supporter of AST, which is part of the Department of Transportation and funded in the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill.  He testified before the T-HUD subcommittee on March 9 advocating for a $23 million budget for AST in FY2018.  His argument is that space transportation is part of the nation's infrastructure, launching satellites like GPS that are essential to everyday life, and AST needs adequate resources to execute its duties.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry group of more than 70 companies and organizations, also is urging Congress to fund the office at $23 million. In a March 29, 2017 letter to the chair and ranking member of the Senate T-HUD appropriations subcommittee, the CSF especially cited the need for AST to update outdated regulations.  "It is essential that AST not simply apply additional funds to existing licensing approaches, but in fact actually reengineer those approaches to reduce unnecessary burdens to AST as well as industry."  The funding increase should be used "to fix AST's obsolete regulations, and not simply grow its status quo workforce, nor pursue newer missions with a lower priority than the core licensing function."

The letter and Bridenstine's testimony were prepared before the Trump Administration's budget request for AST was publicly known.  The $23 million would be a $3.2 million increase from the FY2017 level, substantial in and of itself.  Now that the request is only for $17.9 million, winning congressional support to raise it to $23 million will be no mean feat.  Getting it back to its FY2017 level of $19.8 million might be more achievable.  Bridenstine and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) led the fight last year to get the $19.8 million. Kilmer is a member of the House Appropriations Committee; his Seattle-area district is home to companies like Blue Origin and Planetary Resources.  One factor is whether Bridenstine will remain a member of the House and in a position to fight for AST.  He is a candidate to become NASA Administrator.

AST also receives a small amount of money from the Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) portion of the FAA budget for commercial space transportation safety.  The FY2018 request is $1.796 million, a slight reduction from FY2017.  That money funds its Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation and other R&D activities related to the safe and efficient integration of commercial space transportation into the National Airspace System (NAS).

Integrating commercial space transportation into the NAS is also funded in another part of the FAA's budget -- Facilities & Equipment (F&E) for the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), a different part of the FAA responsible for air traffic control. 

The FAA must clear the airspace around space launches and reentries and is requesting an increase in the F&E FY2018 budget from $2 million to $4.5 million to acquire a Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool that will enable the FAA to safely reduce the amount of airspace that must be closed, respond to unusual scenarios, and release airspace as a mission progresses.

According to the FAA's budget documentation, some of that money also will be used to initiate a pilot program "related to Space Traffic Management" (STM) that will enable FAA to "move toward the goal of monitoring space traffic and reducing the risk of space traffic incidents" and "enable the FAA to monitor space traffic services and their impact to aviation, consistent with the FAA's public safety mission."  The budget document describes the pilot program as funding acquisition of a high performance computing system composed of commercial and governmentally-developed analytical software.  "An initial space situational awareness system comprised of 4 analytical stations with the capability to store and utilize a dynamic orbital object database of roughly 500,000 individual objects will be developed."

STM is an extension of space situational awareness (SSA) -- knowing where space objects are and where they are going in order to avoid collisions.  The Air Force's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) is currently responsible for SSA and computing "conjunction analyses" to warn of potential collisions.  It notifies not only U.S. military users, but commercial and foreign entities (CFEs) as well. 

The Air Force wants the FAA to take over SSA responsibilities for CFEs so JSPoC can focus on military requirements.  Bridenstine and AST Associate Administrator George Nield have been advocating for AST to take on the non-military SSA role for more than a year.  STM implies that an agency has the authority to require a satellite owner to take action to avoid a collision instead of only advising the owner that a collision is possible.  No agency has that authority today, but they view AST as moving into that role over time. 

The pilot program appears to be part of ATO's budget request, however, not AST's.  ATO seems interested in getting involved.  An ATO representative gave a presentation to a Space Traffic Management conference in November 2016 explaining its Commercial Space Integration Team (CSIT) and laying out an "ATO Commercial Space Roadmap."  The budget request does not clarify the respective roles of AST and ATO in this regard.

NOAA's Polar Follow On Bears Brunt of Weather Satellite Cutbacks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-May-2017 (Updated: 24-May-2017 12:08 AM)

NOAA's FY2018 budget request shows a sharp decline in spending for its satellite programs.  Some of that is due to planned reductions as development programs ramp down, but the Polar Follow On program would suffer a significant cut and plans for new space weather satellites would not materialize. 

NOAA operates the nation's civil geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites.  For years, it has been developing a new generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) through the GOES-R program, a set of four satellites (GOES-R, -S, -T and -U).   GOES-R itself was launched last year and redesignated GOES-16, but the series is still referred to as GOES-R.  The budget for that program declines steeply from $753 million appropriated in FY2017 to $519 million requested for FY2018, but it is a planned reduction that was projected in last year's budget.

NOAA is also building a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites - the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).  That program is also ramping down as launch of JPSS-1 nears.  It is scheduled for September 2017.  The FY2018 request for JPSS is $776 million, compared to $787 million appropriated for FY2017. 

The JPSS program funds only the first two satellites in the series, however.  The next two spacecraft, JPSS-3 and -4, are called the Polar Follow On (PFO) program. The FY2018 request is for only $180 million, a sharp drop from the $329 million it received for FY2017 and the $586 million that was projected for this program last year.  Projections for the next four years now are shown only as "TBD."

NOAA's budget documentation says the agency will "initiate a re-plan" for PFO and "work to improve its constellation strategy considering all the polar satellite assets to ensure polar weather satellite continuity while seeking cost efficiencies, managing and balancing systems technical risks and leveraging partnerships."

NOAA also is responsible for providing operational space weather data on solar activity that can affect space and ground systems.  It operates the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and began planning for new satellites to replace it.  The FY2017 budget request called for initiating a new Space Weather Follow-on program of two satellites, the first of which would be launched before DSCOVR exceeds its design lifetime.  The budget request was $2.5 million and Congress doubled that to $5 million.  The projection was for the Space Weather Follow-on to get $53.7 million in FY2018 and ramp up thereafter.  Instead, the FY2018 request is only $500,000.  The Senate just passed the bipartisan Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) to improve space weather forecasting, although it focuses on agency roles and responsibilities, not funding.

The budget request supports NOAA's commercial weather data pilot program, though only at $3 million compared to the $5 million appropriated for FY2017.  It also supports ground systems for radio occultation data (COSMIC-2), but not new satellites.

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

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-May-2017 (Updated: 22-May-2017 06:34 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 22-27, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week. [Updated with more information about Tuesday's contingency ISS spacewalk].

During the Week

The BIG EVENT this week is release of President Trump's complete FY2018 budget request, which will formally kick off debate thereon more than three months late.  Presidents are supposed to submit their annual budget requests to Congress by the first Monday in February, though the first year of a new President's term is almost always an exception.  Trump sent a "budget blueprint" or "skinny budget" with the broad outlines of his proposal in March. (NASA and NOAA fared pretty well all things considered and defense spending overall would get a big boost.)  Without the details, though, the appropriations committees couldn't get started on hearings and deliberations.  

That will change on Tuesday when the complete budget is expected to be submitted.  Remember -- only Congress has the power of the purse. The President PROPOSES a budget, but only Congress decides how much money will be spent and on what. They are supposed to conclude their budget work by September 30 so the new budget is in place by the beginning of the next fiscal year on October 1, but that rarely happens.  For this year (FY2017), they finally got the budget done on May 5, seven months late.  Considering that this budget request isn't even being submitted until May 23, the chances of bills passing by September 30 are virtually non-existent.  Not to mention that quite a few Republicans and Democrats said the Trump budget was "dead on arrival" because of its substantial cuts to agencies like the State Department, National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  It'll be another long budget debate complete with shutdown threats -- which already have been issued not only by Democrats, but the President himself who tweeted on May 2 that the country needs a "good 'shutdown' in September."  Hang onto your hats.

A Washington think tank, the Third Way, got a leaked copy of an Excel spreadsheet with the budget request numbers for budget accounts throughout the government and posted it on its website.  There's still not enough detail to know what the Administration has in mind for DOD or NOAA space activities, but the budget account breakdown for NASA is there. In the order presented in that spreadsheet (which is different from how NASA usually lists it):  

  • Space Operations - $4,740.8 million;
  • Science -  $5,711.8 million;
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services - $2,830.2 million;
  • Exploration - $3,934.1 million;
  • Aeronautics - $624 million;
  • Education - $37.3 million;
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance - $496.1 million;
  • Space Technology - $678.6 million.

That adds up to $19,052.9 million, which would round to the $19.1 billion advertised in the budget blueprint.  It's significantly lower than the $19.65 billion Congress appropriated for FY2017.  The Administration proposed eliminating NASA's Office of Education so it will be interesting to see what the $37.3 million is for. That's roughly how much money is in the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) budget for its education-related activities, so perhaps it is being moved into the Education budget account instead of Science.  We should know on Tuesday.   DOD and NASA usually hold public budget briefings the day the budget is submitted, but we haven't seen any announcements of those briefings yet. We'll post any information we get.

The House Appropriations Committee will hold a hearing on the FY2018 request for the Department of Commerce on Thursday,  It will cover all of the department's activities, of which NOAA is only one part.  Might be interesting, though.

The Senate Commerce space subcommittee will hold a non-budget related hearing on Tuesday.  It will hear testimony from two panels of witnesses on the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and whether it needs to be modified to reflect all that has changed in the intervening 50 years.  Witnesses include space lawyers and representatives of companies affected by the treaty's provisions.

On Thursday, the annual International Space Development Conference (ISDC) gets underway in St. Louis.   On Friday, NASA will have a briefing on what's going up to the International Space Station (ISS) on the next SpaceX cargo mission, SpX-11. The launch itself is scheduled for June 1.

One of the two mulitplexer-demultiplexer (MDM) data relay boxes on the ISS failed yesterday.  The crew is fine, but NASA wants to replace it sooner rather than later.  It announced today (Sunday) that a contingency spacewalk will take place no earlier than Tuesday.   A final decision on when and which astronauts will conduct the spacewalk is expected later today.  Peggy Whitson, currently in command of the ISS, surely will be one of the two. It would be her 10th spacewalk.  The question is whether her partner will be NASA's Jack Fischer or ESA's Thomas Pesquet.  We'll post more information when it becomes available. [UPDATE:  Whitson and Fischer will conduct the spacewalk on Tuesday, May 23, beginning about 8:00 am ET.  NASA TV coverage begins 6:30 am ET.]

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

Tuesday, May 23

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 23-24

Tuesday-Thursday, May 23-25

Thursday, May 25

Thursday-Monday, May 25-29

Friday, May 26

Correction: The Space Diplomacy event on Thursday is in 2043 Rayburn, not 2062 as we originally posted.

Cardin Vows to Continue Mikulski's Advocacy for NASA, NOAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-May-2017 (Updated: 15-May-2017 11:12 PM)

Acknowledging that he has big shoes to fill, Maryland's new senior Senator Ben Cardin  (D-MD) vowed to continue the space advocacy exhibited by his retired colleague Sen. Barbara Mikulski.   She was legendary in her influential support for NASA and NOAA activities in Maryland.  With her retirement, many worry that support for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Greenbelt, MD and NOAA's headquarters and other facilities in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC may wane.  Cardin made it clear that would not be the case.

Cardin was elected to the Senate in 2006 after two decades in the House.  With Mikulski's retirement, he becomes the state's senior Senator and leader of Maryland's 10-member congressional delegation.  Chris Van Hollen, also a Democrat, was elected to fill Mikulski's seat and he is now the junior Senator.  The other members (seven Democrats and one Republican) represent Maryland's eight congressional districts.

Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD).  Photo credit:  Sen. Cardin's Senate website.

In his debut at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) today, Cardin sounded themes that would have been familiar to Mikulski.  He highlighted the number of jobs in Maryland due to space activities, saying that "if you're a Senator from Maryland, you better pay attention to space.  I get it."  He listed his priorities for NASA, all of which have a home at GSFC:  Landsat 9; the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) earth science program; the Hubble, James Webb, and WFIRST space telescopes; the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) for planetary defense; and the RESTORE-L satellite servicing technology development program. He also expressed support for NOAA's weather and space weather satellite programs and NASA's heliophysics research satellite Solar Probe Plus. 

Cardin does not serve on any of the Senate committees that deal with space activities, but he is the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and noted several times the importance of many of these programs to national security.

It was evident that he is still getting up to speed on space issues, but he became more impassioned as his remarks turned to related topics - climate change science, privatization, and restoring "regular order" to Congress to enable passage of timely, bipartisan government funding bills. 

He is concerned about cuts proposed by the Trump Administration to basic science across the government, not only to programs at NASA like PACE, but also to the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.  He said he was at the March for Science in April and stressed the need for Congress to get input from scientists to make good science policy.  His voice rising, he excoriated the politicization of climate change science asking why is it controversial when it is so important not only for the environment, not only for public health, but for national security and jobs.  "For some reason this has become a wedge political issue in American politics. ... Why would we want to deny you [scientists] the tools you need?"

Public private partnerships (PPPs) were another topic on which he has strong feelings.  He supports PPPs, but worries they lack public accountability.   "We need to have public private partnerships, but ...  I want to make sure we have governmental oversight and accountability. When you privatize you lose that. ... Government needs to maintain its role. We're going to fight to do that."

As for the budget, Cardin noted that Congress was able to work together on a bipartisan basis to finalize the FY2017 funding bill and argued that should be the model for future budget bills -- except they should be done on time. Congress needs to return to "regular order" where bills go through the traditional process of hearings and markups and members "work together and not allow any extreme group in the Congress to control what happens."  

"The worst results for the space program in Maryland" and for the nation overall would be if no budget passed and a government shutdown ensued, or a sequester went into effect, or there was a default on the debt, or the government had to operate on Continuing Resolutions.  A coordinated strategy is needed, he said, and he vowed to lead the Maryland congressional delegation to get a budget passed and advance the space program.  Although he does not serve on the committees that oversee NASA or NOAA, Van Hollen is a member of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds both those agencies and Reps. Andy Harris and Dutch Ruppersberger are on the House Appropriations Committee (though not on its CJS subcommittee).

Cardin pointed out the considerable differences between what is in the FY2017 budget and what the Trump Administration proposed for FY2018 in its budget blueprint or "skinny budget" in March.  With or without a coordinated strategy, therefore, it seems quite unlikely that Congress will be able to complete work on the FY2018 budget before October 1 when the fiscal year begins.  The Trump Administration has not even submitted the detailed budget yet.  The latest rumor is that will happen on May 23.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 15-19, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2017 (Updated: 15-May-2017 10:36 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 15-19, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The D.C. space community looked forward every year to Sen. Barbara Mikulski's (D-MD) annual speech to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable (MSBR) to get her take on the congressional landscape for civil space.   She retired at the end of last year, making Sen. Ben Cardin the senior Senator from Maryland and he will take her spot this year.  His talk is tomorrow (Monday) at Martin's Crosswinds in Greenbelt, MD.  [Curiously, the MSBR website today does not show this event, but it seems to have reverted to a 2015 schedule instead of 2017.  MSBR assures us the luncheon is on.]

Cardin was elected to the Senate in 2006 after two decades in the House, but left space program issues to Mikulski so probably is not well known to readers of this website.  He does not serve on any of the Senate committees responsible for NASA or NOAA, so this will be the first opportunity for many to hear his views.  Mikulski's successor, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, won assignment to the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee on which Mikulski served for so many years (sometimes as chair), but as a freshman will not have as much power as she did.  Cardin has 10 years of seniority in the Senate overall, so could be more influential even though he does not sit on the space committees. 

Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland).  Photo Credit:  Senator Cardin's Senate website.

On Tuesday, a seminar entitled "On the Launchpad: Return to Deep Space" will be held at the Newseum in Washington, DC from 1:00-5:00 pm ET and will be webcast.  For those planning to watch the webcast, note that the session itself is only from 1:30-4:00 pm ET. The rest of the time is for registration at the beginning and a reception afterwards.  It has an interesting lineup of speakers.  Among them are NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot; Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), chair of the Senate Commerce space subcommittee; former NASA chief scientist Ellen Stofan; Bob Zubrin of the Mars Society; Chris Carberry of Explore Mars; Mary Lynne Dittmar of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration; and former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria.

Heather Wilson was confirmed as Secretary of the Air Force last week and this week she gets her first turn at the witness table in that position.  On Wednesday, she will testify along with the top Air Force space leadership (Gen. David Goldfein, Gen. John Raymond, and Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves)  and Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office.  The hearing, "Military Space Organization, Policy and Programs," is before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).  SASC usually webcasts its hearings on its website.   

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hasn't posted its hearing schedule yet, but the National Journal's Daybook reports that HASC will have a national security space hearing itself on Friday.  The witness list isn't available yet, but the title is "FY2018 Priorities and Posture of the National Security Space Enterprise."  We'll add more information to our calendar entry when it is available.

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting for President Trump to submit his full FY2018 budget request to Congress.  He sent up a budget blueprint or "skinny budget" in March, but the details were missing (this is common in a new President's first year).  There were rumors a couple of weeks ago that it would be submitted on May 15, but more recent rumors are that it will be May 22.  FY2018 begins on October 1, so everyone needs to get rolling on that.  If you thought reaching agreement on FY2017 was tough, that was child's play compared to FY2018 when, by law, the budget caps established by the 2011 Budget Control Act are back in force.  Some congressional Republicans and Democrats declared the March budget request dead on arrival due to its huge cuts to agencies like the State Department, National Institutes of Health, and Environmental Protection Agency, all while sharply increasing military spending.  All things considered, NASA did pretty well in the budget blueprint.  NOAA's two main weather satellite programs (JPSS and GOES-R) also are OK, but cuts apparently are in store for NOAA's other satellite activities.

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

Monday, May 15

Monday-Tuesday, May 15-16

Monday-Friday, May 15-19

Tuesday, May 16

Wednesday, May 17

Friday, May 19


Note:  This article was updated to reflect the confirmation from MSBR that the Cardin luncheon is, indeed, on for tomorrow, and to add the IAA Planetary Defense conference in Tokyo.

GAO Requested to Study Restoring FAA Commercial Space Office to Secretary's Level

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 10-May-2017 (Updated: 11-May-2017 12:36 AM)

Three members of the House have sent a letter to the Government Accountability Office (GAO) requesting a study on the feasibility of elevating the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) to the Secretary of Transportation's office. Advocates believe that would facilitate getting needed financial and personnel resources to allow the office to fulfill its duties as the commercial space launch business expands.

Reps. Derek Kilmer (D-Washington), Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) and Ami Bera (D-California) sent a letter to GAO on May 8 asking that it examine the following questions:

  • the feasibility of moving AST back into the Secretary's office and what would be required to accomplish it;
  • the advantages and disadvantages of doing so in terms of AST's ability to coordinate and communicate with the FAA on airspace issues; and
  • the key practices identified by GAO in other reorganizations that would be instructive for a successful transition of this nature.

President Ronald Reagan assigned responsibility for regulating the nascent U.S. commercial space launch industry to the Department of Transportation (DOT) in 1983, an action that was codified in law by the 1984 Commercial Space Transportation Act.  The Office of Commercial Space Transportation was established as part of the Secretary of Transportation's office at that time. In 1995, however, it was reassigned to the FAA, one of the eight administrations within DOT.

Similarly, the Office of Space Commerce in the Department of Commerce (DOC) was reassigned from the Secretary of Commerce's office to NOAA.  Bridenstine is one of three members of Congress circulating a discussion draft of a bill that would, among other things. restore that office to its previous status in DOC.  (No bill has been introduced yet.  What is being circulated is a draft bill for discussion purposes to obtain input from stakeholders.)

Congress has passed a number of laws over the past three decades that amend the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act or govern other commercial space activities such as commercial satellite remote sensing, most recently the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. Congressional action is continuing as the commercial space sector grows and many in Congress want to establish a regime with minimal regulation that provides regulatory certainty for potential investors.

FAA/AST is funded as part of the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill.  Kilmer is a member of the House Appropriations Committee.  He and Bridenstine worked together to win a requested increase for FAA/AST's budget in FY2017 from $17.8 million to $19.8 million.  Earlier this year, Bridenstine testified to the T-HUD subcommittee to argue for an increase to $23 million in FY2018.  (At the hearing he also won an endorsement to become the next NASA Administrator from Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, who chairs the subcommittee that funds NASA).

Bera is the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.

Draft Bill Would Give Commerce, Not FAA, "Mission Authorization" Function

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-May-2017 (Updated: 08-May-2017 11:59 PM)

A draft bill being circulated for discussion would assign to the Department of Commerce (DOC) responsibility for registering non-government space activities to ensure, among other things, compliance with U.S. treaty obligations.  For more than a year, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) has been in the forefront of such discussions.  The draft bill instead would consolidate most of the government's authority for overseeing commercial space activities in DOC's Office of Space Commerce and elevate that office to a higher level in the department.

The draft American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2017 is a comprehensive commercial space regulatory streamlining bill being circulated for comment by Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX), Brian Babin (R-TX) and Jim Bridenstine (R-OK).  Smith chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  Babin chairs its Space Subcommittee.  Bridenstine is a member of both and a candidate to become the next NASA Administrator. 

Last year, Bridenstine was championing the idea of expanding FAA/AST's responsibilities to include what is sometimes called "mission authorization" -- providing the authorization and continual supervision of non-governmental space activities required by Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. It was also the position of the Obama White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), which was required by the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) to submit a report to Congress with recommendations on how to fulfill those treaty obligations.  OSTP submitted the report on April 4, 2016.  FAA is part of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and OSTP recommended that DOT take on the mission authorization task. obtained a copy of the new draft legislation.  It does not use the term "mission authorization," but the function would be assigned to the Department of Commerce instead of FAA.  The bill is much more far-reaching, however.  It basically would reset U.S. government oversight and regulation of commercial space activities, consolidating most of it at Commerce and giving the department only a very light regulatory hand.

In a written statement to, Bridenstine said that although his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) last year called for expanding FAA's regulatory role, he now is supporting the approach proposed in this draft legislation.  "I laid out one legislative solution in [ASRA], but my objective over the past several years has been to find a solution that can gain a consensus on Capitol Hill and achieve that policy outcome.  Working closely with Chairman Smith and Chairman Babin, we have developed proposed legislation to create certainty with minimal regulatory burden for the commercial space industry.  This is a strong starting point and I look forward to working with the chairmen and stakeholders to strengthen the bill."

Responsibilities today are split.  FAA/AST regulates and facilitates commercial space launch and reentries (but not what takes place in space).  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) assigns radio spectrum to commercial satellite operators ensuring compliance with International Telecommunication Union (ITU) requirements and promulgates space debris mitigation regulations. NOAA, part of the Department of Commerce, licenses commercial earth remote sensing satellites.

The Office of Space Commerce (OSC) also is part of NOAA.  Created in the 1980s, originally it was part of the Secretary of Commerce's office, but later was renamed the Office of Space Commercialization and transferred to NOAA, one of the dozen bureaus and offices in the Department.  CSLCA restored its original name and this bill would restore its original status.  Instead of being part of NOAA and headed by a director appointed by the Secretary of Commerce, the office would be physically located at the same place as the Secretary of Commerce and headed by an Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Space Commerce appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.  That person would report directly to the Secretary.

Today, OSC is a very small office with a budget in the hundreds of thousands rather than millions.  It is responsible for promoting commercial space activities, but its budget in FY2015 and in FY2016 was only $600,000.  The Obama Administration requested a $1.4 million increase for FY2017, bringing the total to $2 million, but Congress provided only $200,000 of that increase, giving the office a total of $800,000 for FY2017.

The revitalized OSC envisioned in this draft legislation would play a much bigger role.  U.S. non-governmental entities would need to register their activities with OSC, which could accept or deny the registration based on strict rules and timetables established in the bill.  For example, the Secretary of Commerce would have 60 days to approve an application or not.  If it is disapproved, a clear explanation must be provided and the applicant may reapply to address the shortcomings.  If the Secretary does not act within 60 days, the application is automatically approved. The Secretary could waive registration for a space object if it is "too trivial or minor to merit consideration" or would be operated in conjunction with another space object that is registered. 

Once a registration is approved, no other part of the government could prevent launch or reentry on the basis of national security, foreign policy, or U.S. international obligations. It is solely the Secretary of Commerce's responsibility to determine if the proposed activity conforms with U.S. international obligations such as preventing the launch of nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction, as required under the Outer Space Treaty.  In a sense, this is the mission authorization function envisioned by OSTP, although it is not called that in the draft bill.

The FAA/AST would retain its role in regulating commercial space launch and reentries, but no longer could review U.S. payloads for anything other than safety.  Its current authority to review payloads for safety, national security, foreign policy and international obligations would apply only to foreign payloads under this draft bill. The FCC would still assign radio spectrum, ensure compliance with ITU international obligations, and regulate communication satellite operations, but no longer would be involved in on-orbit space debris or end-of-life satellite operations or ensuring compliance with any U.S. foreign obligations. NOAA's Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs would be abolished, with OSC taking on those duties.

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has already held several hearings on commercial space topics over the past year or so, including regulation of commercial remote sensing satellites. That committee took the lead in crafting and passing existing law on that topic -- the 1992 Land Remote Sensing Policy Act.   Despite its best efforts to set time limits on how long the government can take to approve applications to build, launch and operate commercial remote sensing satellites, however, national security agencies have "stopped the clock" on some applications, turning what should be a 120-day process into one that can take years.  Much has changed in the commercial remote sensing satellite marketplace since 1992 as well, making the regulatory environment ripe for review.

This draft legislation would streamline that process.  It states as U.S. policy that "to the maximum extent practicable, the Federal government shall take steps to protect the national security interests of the United States that do not involve regulating or limiting the freedoms of United States non-governmental entities to explore and use space, which shall include Federal government agencies mitigating against any threats to national security posed by United States citizen exploration and use of outer space by changing Federal government activities and operations."

The Secretary of Commerce, and only the Secretary of Commerce, is authorized to permit U.S. entities to operate commercial remote sensing satellites: "No other agency has the authority to authorize, place conditions on, or supervise space-based remote sensing systems."  Furthermore, the Secretary may not place conditions on the permits approved for such U.S. systems if substantially similar capabilities are already available or expected to become available in 3 years from other domestic or foreign commercial sources.  As with the other commercial space activities, the Secretary has 60 days to make a decision or the permit is automatically approved.  If the Secretary determines the system poses a "significant" national security threat, the permit may be granted with conditions to ameliorate those concerns, or denied.  The word significant is defined as imminent, cannot practically be mitigated by changes to federal government activities or operations, and is not currently presented by a foreign actor or expected to be within 3 years.

This draft bill builds on hearings already held by the committee, including one in March that aired different points of view on how to ensure U.S. compliance with the Outer Space Treaty.  Whether the committee will hold a hearing specifically on this bill or not remains to be seen.  The purpose of circulating the discussion draft is to gather input from those who would be affected by it and then determine the next steps.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 8-12, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-May-2017 (Updated: 08-May-2017 08:28 AM)

Here's our list of space policy events for the week of May 8-12, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week; the House is in recess.

During the Week

Although the House is taking a week off from Washington duties to check in with constituents back home, the Senate is in session.  Tomorrow (Monday) it is scheduled to vote on the nomination of former Congresswoman Heather Wilson to be Secretary of the Air Force. Her nomination was approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) last month.  If approved, the Republican who represented the 1st district of New Mexico from 1998-2009 will succeed Deborah Lee James in that role.  Lisa Disbrow has been serving as Acting SecAF since James left on January 20 when the Obama Administration ended.  Wilson would become the first service secretary confirmed in the Trump Administration.  Trump's original nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy withdrew because of financial entanglements.  Trump then nominated Mark Green to be Secretary of the Army, but he withdrew last week because of opposition that developed in reaction to views he is said to have expressed that were offensive to the LGBT community and to Muslims.  Green denied them, but said his nomination had become a "distraction" and therefore withdrew.

Tuesday-Thursday is the 4th Humans To Mars (H2M) Summit, organized by Explore Mars and once again held at George Washington University in Washington, DC.  The event will be webcast.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot will speak at 9:00 am ET on Tuesday, followed by a panel of NASA's Associate Administrators (AAs) for Human Exploration and Operations (Bill Gerstenmaier), Science (Thomas Zurbuchen), and Space Technology (Steve Jurczyk).  Gerstenmaier's deputy for policy and plans Greg Williams then will lay out NASA's current planning for a Deep Space Gateway and Deep Space Transport.   And that's all in just the first two hours!  It's a jam packed agenda.  For those who will be there in person, Leonard David will have a book signing event on Tuesday at lunchtime for his National Geographic book "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet."   David will also be on a panel discussion at a pre-event on Monday evening (separate registration required) with Pascal Lee (Mars Institute), Penny Boston (NASA Astrobiology Institute), and Keith Cowing (NASAWatch).  On Wednesday morning, Jeff Foust (Space News), Frank Morring (Aviation Week) and your faithful editor will be on a panel moderated by former NASA Chief Scientist Ellen Stofan.  On Thursday morning, there's a panel on "Is the Moon a Good Step on the Way to Mars" with Scott Pace (GWU Space Policy Institute and former NASA AA for program analysis and evaluation); Doug Cooke (former NASA AA for Exploration Systems), Tony Antonelli (Lockheed Martin, former astronaut), and Peter McGrath (Boeing), moderated by Kathy Laurini (NASA Senior Advisor for Exploration and Space Operations).  Lots more than can be previewed here.  Check out the agenda.

For anyone who can tear themselves away from H2M on Tuesday, the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) is hosting a luncheon with a very interesting group of speakers on "Defense Space Priorities in the New Administration."  It's at the Army Navy Country Club in Arlington, VA (not to be confused with the Army & Navy Club on 17th St. in D.C.).  Moderated by Todd Harrison from CSIS, the speakers include: John Hill, Acting DOD Deputy Assistant Secretary for Space Policy; David Hardy, Associate Deputy Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space; Col. Sidney Conner, USAF, Deputy Director Space Programs Assistant Secretary (Acquisition); Chirag Parikh, Deputy Director, Counterproliferation, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency; and Lindsay Millard, Program Manager, Tactical Technology Office, DARPA.  Hope you've got your tickets already.  Pre-registration ended May 5.

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

Monday, May 8

Tuesday, May 9

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 9-10

Tuesday-Thursday, May 9-11

  • Humans to Mars (H2M) Summit, George Washington University, Washington, DC, webcast  (pre-event activities on Monday, May 8, require separate registration)

Wednesday, May 10

Thursday, May 11

Friday, May 12

Future Polar Weather Satellites Down, Space Weather Up in NOAA's FY2017 Final Appropriations

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2017 (Updated: 01-May-2017 05:06 PM)

NOAA's Polar Follow On (PFO) program to build the third and fourth Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) weather spacecraft is the only satellite program that will be cut substantially in the final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill.   By contrast, funding for a follow-on space weather satellite is doubled compared to the request, although the request was only $2.5 million.  Congressional leaders reached agreement on a "full year" omnibus appropriations package last night.  It is expected to clear Congress and be signed into law before Friday when the Continuing Resolution (CR) currently funding the government expires.

Overall, NOAA's request for procurement, acquisition and construction of satellites was $2.063 billion and Congress is poised to approve $1.979 billion.

NOAA operates the nation's civil weather satellites.  JPSS is a new generation of polar orbiting satellites that circle Earth's poles, providing data on every part of the planet.   The Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) spacecraft are placed into geostationary orbit above the equator, a location particularly useful for monitoring tropical regions where hurricanes form.  NOAA is just introducing the latest version of the GOES satellites, referred to generically as "GOES-R" although GOES-R itself is just one spacecraft and is already in orbit.  It is part of a set of four satellites, with the remaining three (-S, -T, and -U) scheduled for launch over the next decade.

NOAA defines the JPSS program itself as only the first two satellites in the series.  JPSS-1 is scheduled for launch in late September 2017 and JPSS-2 in the fall of 2022.  The next two spacecraft, JPSS-3 and JPSS-4, are funded separately in the PFO program with launch dates later in the 2020s.  Based on advice from independent review committees, NOAA is hoping to build all four spacecraft in close order to achieve economies of scale and be prepared if any of them fail prematurely or are lost in a launch accident.

The omnibus appropriations bill fully funds JPSS and GOES-R, but cuts funding for PFO by $64 million, providing $328.9 million instead of the $393 million requested. The explanatory statement accompanying the bill does not explain why PFO was cut.  The $393 million request included $10 million for an Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) to build a very small satellite to host a microwave sensor in case anything goes wrong with JPSS-1.  The microwave measurements are critical to weather forecasting.  Congress has not been enthusiastic about EON-MW, but agreed in the omnibus bill that NOAA could proceed with it as long as the PFO program is not negatively impacted.

NOAA uses radio occultation data to improve weather forecasts.  Measurements of temperature and water vapor in the lower atmosphere are obtained using signals from satellites like GPS that provide positioning, navigation and timing data.  It has a cooperative program with Taiwan to build and launch COSMIC satellites to provide that data and is seeking funds to build a new generation of those small satellites. Congress directed NOAA to begin a "commercial weather data pilot" program to purchase such data from commercial companies instead, however.  NOAA is proceeding with that effort, but requested funds for a new set of satellites anyway.  The omnibus bill denies the funding ($8.1 million) for the satellites, but approves an equal amount for the associated ground system.  As for the commercial weather data pilot program, it provides the requested level of $5 million.

NOAA also is responsible for operational space weather forecasting -- monitoring the Sun for ejections of particles that can impact the Earth and cause outages in the electric grid and spacecraft, for example.   NOAA is currently operating the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), located  at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point about 1 million miles (1.5 million kilometers) from Earth.  DSCOVR has four instruments, two of which are dedicated to space weather.   Space weather has become of increasing concern because of the growing reliance, on Earth and in space, on technologies susceptible to temporary or permanent damage.  NOAA wants to get started on a replacement for DSCOVR.  The $2.5 million requested for FY2017 is just the beginning of an effort to acquire two satellites, the first of which would be in place by 2022, the design lifetime of DSCOVR.  In the FY2017 budget request, NOAA projected requesting a total of $368 million from FY2018-FY2021 for the satellites, sensors, and launch vehicles.

In action last year, the House Appropriations Committee approved the request, while the Senate Appropriations Committee tripled it to $7.5 million.  The final figure in the new omnibus appropriations bill, $5 million, is the compromise.  (Some Senators have been focusing on the space weather issue for several years.  Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) and six bipartisan co-sponsors reintroduced the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act earlier this year.  S. 141 was reported from the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on March 30, 2017.)

The omnibus appropriations bill combines 11 of the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills (the 12th, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, was the only FY2017 appropriations bill to clear Congress last year).  The government has been operating on a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) at their FY2016 spending levels since October 1, 2016 when FY2017 began.  The most recent CR, passed last Friday, expires this Friday, May 5.  The goal is to get the omnibus bill signed into law before then.

The next step is for the bill, H.R. 244 as amended, to obtain a "rule" from the House Rules Committee that determines what amendments (if any) may be introduced and sets the amount of time for debate.  The committee will meet tomorrow at 3:00 pm to consider the bill.   H.R. 244 is being used as the legislative vehicle for the omnibus appropriations bill.  It originated as a bill on an unrelated topic (HIRE Vets).  It is common for Congress to use an existing, unrelated bill for an appropriations measure like this because it has already gone through part of the legislative process so can move along quickly.  The bill and explanatory statement are posted on the Rules Committee website.

An updated version of's fact sheet on NOAA's FY2017 budget request will be posted soon.  It has a table comparing FY2016 appropriations with the request as it worked its way through Congress.  The fact sheet will be available from the left menu on our home page under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports."  A fact sheet on NOAA's FY2018 budget request is also there with as much information as is known at the moment.

Final FY2017 Appropriations Bill Gives NASA Big Boost

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2017 (Updated: 05-May-2017 04:22 PM)

Over the weekend, congressional leaders agreed on a final FY2017 omnibus appropriations bill.  NASA would be funded at $19.653 billion, a substantial increase over the amount requested last year by President Obama and somewhat more than approved by the House and Senate appropriations committees.  The recommendations approved by the committees were never finalized by Congress last year.  In the intervening months, the committees obviously found a way to direct even more funding to the space agency.

The bill, H.R. 244 as amended, still must pass the House and Senate, but key members of both chambers clearly believe they have the votes to do so.  President Trump would then have to sign it into law.  Presumably congressional leaders have coordinated with the White House to ensure that happens even though the bill does not include elements of the supplemental request Trump sent to Congress in March, such as funding for the border wall with Mexico.  That will be debated as part of the FY2018 appropriations process.

Congress is using H.R. 244 as the legislative vehicle for the omnibus appropriations bill.  It originally was on an unrelated topic (HIRE Vets).  It is common for Congress to use an existing, unrelated bill as a vehicle for an appropriations measure like this because it has already gone through part of the legislative process so can move along quickly.

FY2017 is more than half over already.  It began on October 1, 2016.  The government has been operating under a series of Continuing Resolutions (CRs) that fund agencies at their FY2016 levels. The most recent CR, passed last Friday, expires this Friday, May 5.  This new "full year" omnibus appropriations bill is expected to pass the House as early as Wednesday, followed by Senate passage soon thereafter to complete action on the FY2017 budget before that deadline.

This is an omnibus appropriations bill that combines 11 of the 12 regular appropriations bills into one package (the 12th bill, Military Construction/Veterans Affairs, is the only one that cleared Congress last year).   The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) portion, which funds NASA and NOAA, is Division B.

President Obama's FY2017 budget request for NASA was convoluted.  Although NASA budget materials show the request as $19.025 billion, only $18.262 billion was requested from appropriated funds -- the money over which appropriations committees have jurisdiction.  The remaining $763 million comprised $663 million that somehow was supposed to be extracted from the "mandatory" portion of the budget that funds programs like Medicare and Social Security, plus $100 million from a tax Obama wanted to impose on oil companies. The appropriations committees ignored that part of the request and dealt only with the $18.262 billion request for appropriated funds.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.306 billion, close to the $19.285 billion Congress provided for NASA in FY2016.   The House Appropriations Committee was more generous, approving $19.508 billion. 

The final bill adds even more, providing a total of $19.653 billion, an increase of  $1.391 billion over Obama's request for appropriated funds. 

Key elements of the funding provided for NASA include the following.  Comparisons to "the request" are to the amounts requested from appropriated funds (i.e., excluding the mythical $763 million).  An updated version of's NASA budget fact sheet will be posted soon (available from our left menu under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports").  It includes a table comparing FY2016 appropriations with the FY2017 request as it worked its way through the authorization and appropriation processes.

  • Science:  $5.765 billion (the request was $5.303 billion).
    • Earth science: $1.921 billion, including $90 million for PACE and $130.9 million for Landsat 9 (President Trump has proposed cancelling PACE in his FY2018 budget request).  The request was $1.973 billion.
    • Planetary science: $1.846 billion, including $363 million for outer planets of which $275 million is for the Europa mission.  The request was $1.391 billion. 
    • Astrophysics: $750 million, including $105 million for WFIRST, $85.2 million for SOFIA, and $98.3 million for Hubble.  The request was $696.5 million.
    • James Webb Space Telescope:  $569.4 million, the same as the request.
    • Heliophysics: $678.5 million.  The request was $673.7 million.
    • Education and Public Outreach:  $37 million to be derived equally from planetary science and astrophysics and administered by the Astrophysics Division (this amount is included in the $750 million for astrophysics, not in addition to it, according to a table in the report accompanying the bill)
  • Aeronautics:  $660 million (the request was $634.5 million).
  • Space Technology:  $686.5 million (the request was $690.6 million), including $35 million for nuclear propulsion, $30 million for small launch capabilities, $35 million for additive manufacturing, $25.718 million for optical communications, and $66.6 million for solar electric propulsion.
  • Exploration:  $4.324 billion (the request was $3.164 billion), including direction that NASA continue to develop advanced propulsion, asteroid deflection and grappling technologies associated with the Asteroid Redirect Mission but "these activities should not distract from the overarching goal of sending humans to Mars" and $75 million is designated for habitation augmentation activities.  
  • Space Operations: $4.951 billion (the request was $5.076 billion), including the full request of $1.185 billion for commercial crew and "up to" $1.028 billion for commercial cargo.  No further breakdown was provided.
  • Education:  $100 million (the request was $100.1 million), including $18 million for EPSCoR, $40 million for Space Grant, $32 million for MUREP, and $10 million for STEM Education and Accountability Projects (President Trump has proposed eliminating NASA's Office of Education in his FY2018 budget request).
  • Safety, Security and Mission Services: $2.769 billion (the request was $2.837 billion).
  • Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration (CECR): $360.7 million (the request was $419.8 million).
  • Office of Inspector General:  $37.9 million (the request was $38.1 million).

The big winners were planetary exploration and human exploration.  Many other accounts also saw increases of varying magnitude.  Space Operations was the only area of flight programs to get less than requested -- $4.951 billion instead of $5.0976 billion.  Since commercial crew and commercial cargo were funded at their requested levels, the reductions will have to come from other parts of the account such as International Space Station operations or Space and Flight Support.  The $68 million cut to Safety, Security and Mission Services and the $59 million cut to CECR could affect NASA's internal operations.  They fund day-to-day operations and construction projects at NASA's field centers around the country, for example, including cybersecurity activities.

The next step for the omnibus appropriations bill is to get a "rule" from the House Rules Committee spelling out what amendments may be offered (if any) and how much time is allowed for debate.  The committee will meet tomorrow (Tuesday) at 3:00 pm ET.   The text of the bill and explanatory statement are posted on the Rules Committee's website.  The bill will then go the House floor for debate and a vote, then to the Senate, then to the President's desk.  That is all expected to completed before Friday midnight when the existing CR expires.

Congress has been able to be generous to NASA for the past several years because Congress and the Obama White House agreed to relax spending caps imposed by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA).  The last agreement relaxed the caps through FY2017.  They return for FY2018.  Whether the Trump Administration and Congress will agree to relax them -- or repeal the law entirely -- remains to be seen.   President Trump asserted in his FY2018 budget blueprint that he had repealed the BCA for defense spending.  He cannot repeal a law; Congress must do that.  In any case, "repealing" only the limits for defense spending while keeping them for non-defense spending (like NASA) would certainly encounter strong resistance in Congress, especially from Democrats.

The point is that the largely happy outcome for NASA in FY2017 may not be a bellwether for FY2018 or future years.  NASA clearly has strong support in Congress, especially from the powerful chairmen of the House and Senate CJS subcommittees -- Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) -- but NASA is just one small part of federal spending, which is deeply affected by debates over tax reform and deficit reduction.  Anything can happen.

Correction: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the bill and explanatory statement did not provide details on funding under the Exploration account.  A table in the explanatory statement does specify the following:  Orion, $1.35 billion; SLS, $2.15 billion; Exploration Ground Systems, $429 million, and Exploration R&D, $395 million.