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Commercial Space News

Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Bill Makes a Comeback

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jan-2017 (Updated: 15-Jan-2017 03:48 PM)

The House passed a new iteration of the Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act on January 9.  H.R. 353 is the latest version of legislation that passed the Senate in the closing days of the 114th Congress, but did not clear the House.  The bill's focus is not on satellites, but several provisions would affect NOAA's satellite activities.

The legislation dates back to 2013 and went through many changes before passing the Senate on December 1, 2016 as H.R. 1561.  That was thought to be a compromise between the House and Senate, combining elements of the version of H.R. 1561 that passed the House on May 19, 2015; S. 1331, the Seasonal Weather Forecasting Act, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee on May 20, 2015; S. 1573, Weather Alerts for a Ready Nation Act, reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on October 19, 2015; and H.R. 34, the Tsunami Warning, Education and Research Act, which passed the House on January 7, 2015 and the Senate (amended) on October 6, 2015.  (Note that H.R. 34 became the legislative vehicle for the 21st Century Cures Act, which recently became law, but does not contain any of the tsunami language.)

Although Senate passage seemed to bode well for the legislation, it turned out that not everyone agreed with the compromise.  House Republicans from Georgia objected to a water resources provision that earlier had been added by Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D) even though Georgia's two Senators had agreed to the bill by unanimous consent.  The Washington Post reported that House leadership removed the language and tried to pass the bill by unanimous consent, but the Senate indicated it would not accept the bill if amended in that manner. The controversial language calls for a study of water resources of the Chattahoochee River, a major water source for Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Thus, the bill died at the end of the 114th Congress.  It now has been reintroduced as H.R. 353, without the water resources provision.  The question remains as to whether the Senate will agree to this version.   (The new bill also omits the tsunami provisions, which were reintroduced separately as H.R. 312.)

Satellite-related provisions of H.R. 353 require NOAA to do the following:

  • develop and maintain a prioritized list of observation data requirements necessary to ensure weather forecasting capabilities to protect life and property to the maximum extent practicable and utilize Observing System Simulation Experiments (OSSEs), Observing System Experiments, Analyses of Alternatives and other assessment tools to continually evaluate observing systems, data and information needed to meet those requirements and identify potential gaps and options to address gaps;
  • undertake OSSEs to quantitatively assess the relative value and benefits of observing capabilities and systems and determine the potential impact of proposed space-based, suborbital, and in situ observing systems on analyses and forecasts;
  • conduct OSSEs prior to the acquisition of government-owned or -leased operational observing systems, including polar orbiting and geostationary satellites with a lifecycle cost of more than $500 million and prior to the purchase of any major new commercially provided data with a lifecycle cost of more than $500 million;
  • complete an OSSE to assess the value of data from Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Radio Occultation (RO) within 30 days of enactment of this law;
  • complete an OSSE to assess the value of data from a geostationary hyperspectral sounder global constellation within 120 days of enactment;
  • after completing the OSSEs, make public an assessment of private and public weather data sourcing options, including their availability, affordabilty, and cost-effectiveness;
  • complete and operationalize the COSMIC-1 and COSMIC-2 satellite constellations (joint programs with Taiwan for obtaining GNSS-RO measurements)
  • enter into an agreement with the National Academy of Sciences or another appropriate organization before September 30, 2018 to study future satellite needs;
  • submit a strategy to enable the procurement of quality commercial weather data within 180 days of enactment;
  • publish data and metadata standards and specifications for space-based commercial weather data within 30 days of enactment and enter into at least one pilot contract  within 90 days of enactment, and within 3 years of the contract date, submit a report to Congress on the results;
  • publish data and metadata standards and specifications for geostationary hyperspectral data as soon and possible;
  • if the results of the commercial weather data pilots are successful, obtain commercial weather data from private sector providers where appropriate, cost-effective and feasible, and as early as possible in the acquisition process for future government meteorological satellites, consider whether commercial capabilities could meet those needs; and
  • continue to meet international meteorological agreements, including practices set forth through World Meteorological Organization Resolution 40

The bill authorizes $6 million per year for FY2017-2020 for the commercial weather data pilot program. 

The FY2016 Consolidated Appropriations Act provided $3 million for NOAA to initiate a commercial weather data pilot program and it is progressing already, with two contracts awarded in September 2016.  NOAA requested $5 million for FY2017; Congress has not completed action on FY2017 appropriations bills. 

H.R. 353 is an authorization bill that officially authorizes the activity and recommends future year funding.   (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See our "What's a Markup?" Fact Sheet.)

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK), vice chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, and has 5 Republican and 1 Democratic co-sponsors. Among the co-sponsors are Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who has chaired the House SS&T's Environment Subcommittee for several years, and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), who has been the top Democrat on that subcommittee. Both spoke in favor of the bill during debate on the House floor, as did House SS&T chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) submitted a statement.  The bill passed the House by voice vote.

What's Happening in Space Policy January 16-20, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 15-Jan-2017 (Updated: 15-Jan-2017 12:05 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 16-20, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.   The Senate will be in session most of the week; the House will be in session only on Friday.

During the Week

The workweek begins on Monday with a federal holiday (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day) and ends on Friday with the inauguration of Donald J. Trump as the 45th President of the United States.  Friday is not a federal holiday, but government offices and many businesses in the Washington, DC area will be closed.  Word of warning if you're coming to DC for any reason this week: the security folks are going to start closing roads on WEDNESDAY in preparation for Friday's inaugural activities.  Federal workers in DC are being encouraged by the Office of Personnel Management to telework Wednesday and Thursday because it's going to be very difficult to get around town those days, never mind Friday or Saturday (when protests will continue, including the Women's March on Washington). 

Trump will be sworn in at noon on Friday (January 20) and at that point President Obama's political appointees lose their jobs unless they've been specifically asked to stay on.  At NASA, Administrator Charlie Bolden and Deputy Administrator Dava Newman are leaving, and Robert Lightfoot, the top NASA civil servant, will become Acting Administrator.   (Lightfoot will be speaking at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable in Greenbelt, MD on Tuesday.)   Another Obama political appointee, Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski, has been ask to stay for a while, however.  We're trying to get information from NOAA on who will be in charge there at 12:01 pm ET. 

No announcements have been made by the Trump transition team as to who they plan to put in place permanently at NASA or NOAA, although there are widespread rumors that Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is a top candidate for NASA Administrator.  He has been very active legislatively in DOD, NOAA, and FAA space issues (he chairs the Environment Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and is a member of the House Armed Services Committee), but not much with NASA.  He is an advocate of creating a legal and regulatory environment that facilitates the emergence of new commercial space activities, expanding the role of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation to include non-military space situational awareness and authorizing in-space activities (not just launch and reentry), and promoting public private partnerships.  He spearheaded the creation of the commercial weather data pilot programs at NOAA and DOD, but stresses they are in addition to, not instead of, the government's own weather satellites.  His is not the only name circulating as potential Administrator, and he also has been mentioned as a candidate for Secretary of the Air Force, however, so this is not a sure bet.  Stay tuned.

At DOD, Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Ash Carter and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James (and presumably the other service secretaries) are leaving.  Trump has announced plans to nominate Gen. James Mattis (USMC, Ret.), 66, as SecDef and the Senate Armed Services Committee has already held his nomination hearing.  Space activities did not come up during the open hearing.  The committee gave him a set of written questions in advance and four were about space, but were not very newsworthy (they are posted on the committee's website).  The Senate and House passed legislation last week allowing him to serve as SecDef even though he retired only 3 years ago and the law requires a 7-year separation.  President Obama is expected to sign the bill, clearing the way for Mattis to be confirmed as soon as Trump takes office.  Literally.  Confirmation votes are expected in the Senate Friday afternoon. 

The Senate will continue confirmation hearings this week.  Among them are the hearing for Wilbur Ross Jr. to be Secretary of Commerce.  The 79-year old billionaire is an investor, company turn-around specialist, and former banker.  What views he may hold on NOAA or its satellite activities are unknown.  Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee held the nomination hearing for Elaine Chao, 63, to be Secretary of Transportation and it was clear she was not yet up to speed on that department's space-related responsibilities.   Which is hardly surprising in either case.  Both Commerce and Transportation have very broad portfolios. Space is a minor part of what they do.

By the end of the week, Mattis, Ross and Chao are likely to be confirmed by the Senate for their new positions. Though some of Trump's nominee-designates are controversial, these three do not seem to be among them.  Chao has experience in leading federal agencies already, having served as Deputy Secretary of Transportation under President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush.  Mattis has a long and distinguished military career and was most recently Commander of U.S. Central Command, so clearly has strong leadership skills, but has not run a federal agency.  Rumors are that Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work is being asked to stay for a few months to ease the transition.  Ross has led businesses, but has no prior government experience (which is not uncommon for Cabinet-level positions).  It is interesting to note that outgoing Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker recommended in her "exit memo" that the Commerce Department be "streamlined" into a "Department of Business" as President Obama proposed in 2012, with NOAA and other parts of Commerce transferred elsewhere (NOAA would have gone to the Department of the Interior).  With his business focus, one wonders if Ross might advocate for the same thing.

Frank Kendall, the outgoing Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, will give his final speech in that position on Tuesday at CSIS where he will talk about (and sign) his new book "Getting Defense Acquisition Right."  Will be interesting to hear what he says about acquisition of space systems, which is expected to be a major topic in Congress this year.  The event will be webcast.

On Wednesday, NASA and NOAA will release the latest annual data on global temperatures and discuss the most important climate trends of 2016.  That will be done via a media teleconference call.  Anyone may listen and see the associated graphics on the NASA Live website (formerly NASA News Audio).

European Space Agency (ESA) Director General Jan Woerner will hold his annual press breakfast at ESA HQ in Paris on Wednesday morning.  It's a bit early in the United States (3:00-5:00 am Eastern), but ESA often posts the webcast for later viewing on its website.

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

Monday, January 16

  • U.S. Federal Holiday (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day)

Tuesday, January 17

Wednesday, January 18

Wednesday-Friday, January 18-20

Friday, January 20

SpaceX Successfully Returns to Flight with Iridium NEXT Launch

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Jan-2017 (Updated: 14-Jan-2017 05:59 PM)

SpaceX successfully returned its Falcon 9 rocket to flight status today, launching 10 Iridium NEXT communications satellites from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.   It also landed the Falcon 9 first stage on one of its autonomous spaceport drone ships (ASDS) off the California coast, the first such landing for a West Coast launch.  All 10 satellites were successfully placed into their orbits about one hour after launch.

SpaceX has been recovering from a September 1, 2016 incident at its Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL launch pad that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and the AMOS-6 communications satellite.  That was not a launch failure.  Instead it occurred two days before the scheduled launch during fueling of the rocket for a routine pre-launch static fire test.

SpaceX’s investigation did not identify a single definitive cause, but the company concluded that one of the three composite overwrapped pressure vessels (COPVs) inside the rocket’s second stage liquid oxygen (LOX) tank failed.  The COPVs contain helium.  The failure occurred due to “accumulation of super chilled LOX or SOX [solid oxygen] in buckles under the overwrap.”  In the short term, the solution is to use warmer helium and helium loading operations used successfully in the past.

This is the first of seven SpaceX launches for Iridium, which operates a constellation of 66 operational satellites that provide mobile voice and data communications. The 10 Iridium NEXT satellites launched today are the first of 70 that will replace the original constellation. The satellites are in 6 planes of 11 satellites each, all in high inclination orbits that dictate launches from Vandenberg rather than Cape Canaveral so the rocket’s flight path avoids populated areas.

The satellites are launched 10 at a time because that is the maximum capacity of the Falcon 9 rocket according to a tweet from Iridium CEO Matt Desch (@IridiumBoss), who added that they have “an elaborate plan to insert some sats and drift others to get 11 into each plane.”

The new satellites are more powerful, have higher data speeds, and offer new services like the ability to track aircraft around the world in real time, a service that will be provided by Aireon.

SpaceX also successfully landed the Falcon 9’s first stage on one its ASDS ships.   The one used today is named Just Read the Instructions.  (The other is Of Course I Still Love You.)  The company has recovered several first stages from East Coast launches, but this is only the second time it has tried a landing with a West Coast launch.  The first attempt failed when one of the four landing legs did not lock into position.

SpaceX Falcon 9 first stage from Iridium NEXT launch lands on drone ship Just Read the Instructions off the California coast, January 14, 2017.  Screengrab from SpaceX webcast.

There was no such problem today and a camera aboard the first stage showed its descent and touchdown right on the “X” on the drone ship.   SpaceX is recovering its first stages with the goal of reusing them and thereby reducing launch costs.

The Falcon 9 was launched from Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex 4E (SLC-4E) today, a launch pad it leases from the Air Force.  It also leases SLC-40 at CCAFS, which was badly damaged by the September 1 incident, as well as NASA's Launch Complex 39-A at Kennedy Space Center, which is adjacent to CCAFS.  SpaceX plans to build its own launch site near Brownsville, TX.

Note:  This article was updated once the satellites were successfully deployed.

Chao Punts on Whether Commercial Space Should be Restored to DOT Secretary's Office

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Jan-2017 (Updated: 12-Jan-2017 10:29 PM)

During her confirmation hearing yesterday, Secretary of Transportation-designate Elaine Chao punted on a question from Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) about whether the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) should be restored to the Secretary's office instead of being subordinate to the FAA.

President-elect Trump has announced his intention to nominate Chao to be Secretary of Transportation. Her confirmation hearing was held before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee yesterday.  Chao was Deputy Secretary of Transportation during part of the George H.W. Bush Administration and Secretary of Labor under President George W. Bush.   She also was Deputy Administrator of DOT's Maritime Administration and chairwoman of the Federal Maritime Commission.  Among her other career achievements, she was President and CEO of United Way of America and Director of the Peace Corps.  Most recently she has been a Distinguished Fellow at the Heritage Foundation.  She is married to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who introduced her at the hearing along with fellow Kentucky Senator Rand Paul.

The preponderance of questions were on other aspects of DOT's broad responsibilities, such as privatization of air traffic control, drones, the Maritime Administration, freight delivery by railroads, commuter rail, highway safety, and infrastructure investments for airports, highways, and railways.

Cruz was the only Senator who asked about DOT's space-related activities.  He chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee.  During the last Congress, he was one of the Senate leaders in passing the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA). 

At the hearing, he stated that CSLCA "directs the department to look at moving the Office of Commercial Space Transportation back under the secretary" and asked if she would support such a move to create "an environment where commercial space launch can thrive".  He noted that it was part of the Secretary's office when she was Deputy Secretary in the early 1990s.

Chao clearly was unprepared for the question, though that seemed to be true throughout the hearing.  In this case, she thanked Cruz for bringing the matter to her attention and said she looked forward "to getting briefed on the current status of this issue."  He replied that he looked forward to working with her on the issue.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) reminded Cruz that he had been an author of the original commercial space launch legislation in the 1980s (when he was a member of the House), but did not ask Chao any questions about her plans for commercial space.

President Ronald Reagan assigned DOT responsibility for facilitating and regulating the commercial space launch industry in 1983 through an Executive Order. Congress followed with the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act, which has been amended several times since.  Initially, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation was part of the Secretary's office, but was transferred to the FAA in November 1995.  Commercial space launch advocates have argued for many years that it should be restored to the Secretary's office to get the visibility and resources it needs.

Those resource requirements could grow substantially if AST's role is expanded along the lines of recent discussions.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), for example, is a champion for making AST responsible for providing Space Situational Awareness data and conjunction analyses to non-military entities, and regulating in-space activities such as asteroid mining in addition to its current roles in regulating launch and reentry.

Bridenstine just began his third term in Congress, but is widely rumored to be the Trump transition team's top choice for NASA Administrator.  No such announcement has been made yet.

Satellite Export Controls Get Another Update, JWST No Longer Under ITAR

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jan-2017 (Updated: 11-Jan-2017 11:38 PM)

The Departments of Commerce and State announced more changes to the regulations that govern satellite exports yesterday. The new rules affect a range of activities from commercial remote sensing satellites to human spacecraft to the James Webb Space Telescope and become effective on January 15, 2017.

After more than a decade of battling stringent export controls that many in the satellite industry claimed hampered U.S. efforts to compete on the global stage, a substantial victory was won in 2014 when many commercial satellite items were moved from the State Department's U.S. Munitions List (USML) and its International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) to the Department of Commerce's Commerce Control List (CCL) of dual-use technologies governed by the Export Administration Regulations (EAR).

Still, there were remaining matters to be settled, several of which were addressed in yesterday's announcement.  A summary published by NOAA's Office of Space Commerce includes the following:

  • increases the aperture thresholds for control of remote sensing satellites and components;
  • eliminates controls based on whether a spacecraft supports human habitation, but such spacecraft may be controlled by other criteria;
  • redefines several controls based on technical capabilities rather than end use of the spacecraft;
  • removes and replaces confusing criteria concerning integrated propulsion and attitude control;
  • adds thresholds for controls on electric propulsion systems; and
  • clarifies various ambiguities.

A quick glance at the new rules as published in the Federal Register (the Office of Space Commerce website has links) provides additional details:

  • The aperture limits for commercial electro-optical remote sensing satellites will be raised from 0.35m to 0.50m, which is still short of the 1.1m requested by some of the commenters; and
  • ITAR controls on electric propulsion systems are for those that provide greater than 300 milli-Newtons of thrust and a specific impulse greater than 1,500 sec, or operate at an input power of more than 15kW.

Another interesting decision is that NASA's James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is being moved to the CCL.  "A determination was made ... that this specific telescope ... did not warrant being subject to the ITAR."   The change includes parts, components, accessories and attachments that are specially designed for use in or for JWST.   JWST is NASA's next major space telescope.  In many ways it is a follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope and is scheduled for launch on a European Ariane rocket in 2018.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

During the Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday-Thursday, January 8-12

Monday-Friday, January 9-13

Tuesday-Wednesday, January 10-11

Wednesday, January 11

Wednesday-Friday, January 11-13

Thursday, January 12

Friday, January 13

Saturday, January 14

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obama Administration Assesses Its Space Achievements in "Exit Memos"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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