Commercial Space News
House and Senate budget conferees tasked with reaching a budget deal by December 13 surprised many not only by reaching agreement at all, but a few days early.
House Budget Committee chairman Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Senate Budget Committee chairman Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) announced today a two-year (FY2014-2015) budget agreement that replaces the sequester and sets government spending approximately mid-way between the amounts earlier approved separately by the House and Senate. The total amount of government spending recommended for FY2014 in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013 is $1.012 trillion. The House had approved $967 billion while the Senate approved $1.058 trillion.
How those figures filter down to the 12 appropriations subcommittees and the individual agencies -- like DOD, NASA and NOAA -- they fund remains to be seen, but the fact that agreement was reached at all is a positive sign. Senate Appropriations Committee chair Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) lauded the agreement, saying it means "we can meet national security needs while meeting compelling human needs like education, health and housing." Mikulski's House counterpart, Rep. Harold Rogers (R-KY), similarly praised the deal, saying it took "courage and resolve."
The budget conferees had a December 13 deadline based on the agreement that reopened government in October. Few expected they would meet that deadline, much less beat it. The House and Senate still must agree to its recommendations. Then the House and Senate appropriations committees must agree on how to allocate those funds and get the approval of their respective chambers. That step must happen before January 15, 2014 when the current Continuing Resolution (CR) expires.
While the agreement is good news on gridlocked Capitol Hill, it is only for two years rather than 10, does not raise the debt limit (the current agreement on that expires on February 7), and does not reform either entitlement programs like Medicare and Medicaid or the tax code. If approved by the House and Senate, however, it should avoid another government shutdown and provide a framework for the appropriations committees to make funding decisions for two fiscal years.
The chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees announced today that their committees, at least, have reached compromise on the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House passed its version in June, but the Senate version got stuck in partisan debate over amendments when it was brought to the floor for a vote just before Thanksgiving.
Republican House Armed Services Committees (HASC) chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) and Democratic Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) held a press conference today and released a fact sheet spelling out key aspects of the agreement. While it is only between the committees at this point and does not ensure the bill will clear Congress by the end of this week, it could speed the process along. The House currently plans to adjourn for the rest of the year on Friday.
The annual defense authorization bill is one of the few authorization bills that always clears Congress despite the depth of political gridlock. It enjoys a 51-year record of success because members of both parties on both sides of Capitol Hill consider defense issues to be such a high priority. Nonetheless, with the clock ticking, concern has been growing that this year might be the exception.
The plan apparently is for the House to pass the compromise bill this week before it leaves town and the Senate to pass it next week. However, that would mean no changes could be made in the Senate since the House no longer will be in session to approve a revised version. That could be a risky strategy since many Senators had amendments they wanted to offer to the SASC version of the bill. That was the main obstacle in getting it through the Senate last month. Still, if enough people want a bill, even one that is far from perfect, it could work. Or if there were relatively minor changes, it is conceivable that the House could reconvene to consider an amended version, perhaps hoping to pass it by voice vote so not all members would need to return to town.
In any case, the nine page fact sheet makes several statements about certain national security space issues, but provides little other detail. Under the heading Accountability for Vital Strategic Programs and Assets, it says:
Although the fact sheet does not provide details, the third bullet probably refers to the debate over whether monitor stations for Russia's GLONASS navigation satellite system should be placed in the United States as proposed by the State Department but opposed by DOD and CIA.
The bill would fund DOD at $552.1 billion for FY2014, plus another $80.7 billion for Overseas Contingency Operations (e.g. the war in Afghanistan).
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House and Senate both are in session.
During the Week
The House is scheduled to adjourn for the year on Friday; the Senate plans to be here one more week after that. If those schedules hold, this is the last week in 2013 that they both will be in session and thus able to get legislation passed and to the White House. Many Senators say that of all the pending legislation, they really want to get the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) passed, but they didn't make much progress before the Thanksgiving break because of partisan disputes over amendments. The House passed its version in June. This is the one authorization bill that always gets through no matter how tough the political times -- a 51-year record. Will this year be the exception?
Friday, December 13, is not only the last scheduled day for the House to meet this year, but is also the deadline for the budget conference committee to reach agreement on federal funding for FY2014, at least. The conference committee was created as part of the deal to reopen the government in October and even at the time few were optimistic it would meet that deadline. Nothing has changed.
Lots of interesting events this week, including a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on "weather readiness" that includes Tom Young reporting on his Independent Review Team that is watching over NOAA's weather satellite programs. That's on Thursday at 10:30 am. Note that It's not in the committee's regular hearing room in the Russell Building, but in G-50 Dirksen. The previous day, a House subcommittee will hold a hearing on "A Factual Look at the Relationship Between Climate and Weather." The witnesses have not been announced yet, so it's not clear how much if any of that deals with satellite issues.
Separately, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee may resume its markup of the bill that affects how NASA handles termination liability for its major human spaceflight programs (SLS, Orion and ISS). The committee approved three bills on Thursday, but when it came to this one, chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said more time was needed for Republicans and Democrats to work out their differences so the bill has bipartisan support. He tentatively set Tuesday at 2:00 pm EST to resume the markup, but it is not definite. At stake is how $507 million in the hands of contractors will be spent -- to execute the programs or held in reserve in case the government terminates the contracts.
Across the country in San Francisco all week, the American Geophysical Union (AGU) annual meeting is certain to be chock full of fascinating scientific findings. Many press conferences are scheduled and will be livestreamed. We created a list of those that are probably most interesting to the space community, but the full list is on the AGU website, so you can pick your own. That website has a tab labeled "Webstreaming." Click on that to listen in.
Meanwhile, the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and several of its committees are meeting down in Florida, at Kennedy Space Center. NASA is restructuring NAC, getting rid of three committees and merging a fourth (Commercial Space) into one of the remaining committees. The way NASA and NAC chairman Steve Squyres describe the situation it's a done deal, but there might be some discussion of why the decision was made and its implications. NAC itself meets on Wednesday and Thursday. The NAC meeting and most NAC committee meetings are available via WebEx and telecom. See our calendar entries for instructions on how to tune in. NASA has not posted an agenda for the NAC meeting yet. Hopefully it will before the meeting takes place. If so, it should be posted on the NAC website.
Those and many more meetings of interest are in the list below. These are the ones we know of as of Sunday morning. We're posting this a bit early today because there's a nasty ice storm coming this afternoon and there's a chance of losing power, so we wanted to get this up on the website before anything bad happens.
Monday, December 9
Monday-Tuesday, December 9-10
Monday-Friday, December 9-13
Tuesday, December 10
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 10-11
Wednesday, December 11
Wednesday-Thursday, December 11-12
Thursday, December 12
Friday, December 13
NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has decided to significantly restructure the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), which provides independent external advice to the agency. Three of the NAC's eight committees will be eliminated, including the Education and Public Outreach Committee, and the activities of a fourth -- the Commercial Space Committee -- will be merged with another.
NASA just renewed the NAC charter in October, making only minor changes to the number of times a year it meets (three instead of four) and reducing its level of funding. That renewal kept the same committees NAC has had since Bolden became Administrator: Aeronautics; Audit, Finance, and Analysis; Commercial Space; Education and Public Outreach; Human Exploration and Operations; Information Technology Infrastructure; Science; and Technology and Innovation.
A blog post by NAC Chairman Steve Squyres posted on NASA's website reveals a decision to eliminate three committees: Audit, Finance, and Analysis; Education and Public Outreach; and IT Infrastructure. Squyres distinguishes between the elimination of those three committees and the fate of the Commercial Space Committee, which he describes as being "merged" with the Human Exploration and Operations Committee.
The new committee lineup will be:
NAC will also set up two task forces -- one on STEM Education and another Big Data. They will have "a focused task and limited duration."
NAC reports to the NASA Administrator and every iteration of the NAC structure and membership reflects each Administrator's personal preferences on how he obtains advice. During Bolden's tenure, the membership of NAC has been the NAC chairman plus the chairs of the eight NAC committees he created. (The chairs of the National Research Council's Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board are ex officio members of NAC as well.)
Now, with only five committees, several 'at-large' members will be added. They are to provide "strategic insight and expert advice across the work of the entire Agency" according to Squyres.
Squyres says the decision was made after "a recent internal review" by Bolden. "The restructuring process ... will begin immediately and will be fully realized over the next several months. As Chairman of NAC, I'm looking forward to putting this new structure in place."
NAC's next meeting is at Kennedy Space Center, FL on December 11-12. A detailed agenda has not yet been posted, but an overall agenda posted in the Federal Register shows that it will discuss topics in each of the areas of the original eight committees except for commercial space.
SpaceX succeeded today in launching the SES-8 communications satellite. This was the company's third try -- or sixth depending on how one counts it.
Three attempts on November 25 and two on November 28 failed to leave the pad for a variety of technical reasons. Today's countdown, however, proceeded nominally and launch took place at 5:41 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST) from Cape Canaveral, FL.
SpaceX Falcon 9 v1.1 lifts off from Cape Canaveral, FL carrying SES-8 satellite, December 3, 2013. Photo credit: SpaceX
Getting off the launch pad was only the first step, though. The Falcon 9 v1.1's second stage had to reignite in order to continue boosting the satellite into its correct orbit. This is only the second flight of this version of the Falcon 9 and second stage reignition did not work on its inaugural launch in September. SpaceX ended live coverage of the launch prior to that critical event, providing updates only via Twitter and on its website. It tweeted (@SpaceX) at 6:12 pm ET that "#Falcon9 second stage restart burn successful. Orbit looks nominal."
SES-8 is owned by Luxembourg-based SES, one of the largest communications satellite operators in the world with a fleet of 54 satellites, not including this one.
The Falcon 9 v1.1's job is to place SES-8 into a geostationary transfer orbit (GTO) at 295 x 80,000 kilometers (km). The satellite eventually will be circularized into geostationary orbit (GEO) at 35,800 km using other propulsion.
SpaceX spokeswoman Emily Shanklin tells SpacePolicyOnline.com this morning that they will try to launch SES-8 tomorrow, Tuesday, December 3, not today. Earlier the company had said that today was the "earliest" it would be ready to try again.
In an email, Shankin said that "we're now targeting launch on Tuesday with Wednesday as a back-up day. We made great progress over the weekend so looks good for Tuesday."
SpaceX made three attempts on November 25 and two attempts on November 28 to launch the SES-8 communications satellite. This is SpaceX's first launch to geostationary transfer orbit. On November 28, the autosequencer aborted the launch at the very last instant. SpaceX reported on its website that it was "caused by oxygen in the ground side ingiter fluid (TEA-TEB). Rocket engines are healthy, but cleaning turbopump gas generators wlll take another day. Earliest possible launch attempt is Monday evening."
SpaceX founder and CTO Elon Musk tweeted (@elonmusk) yesterday that they "Replaced gas generator on engine 9 (center) as a precautionary measure." This morning he tweeted that "All known rocket anomalies resolved. Will spend another day rechecking to be sure. Launch attempt tmrw eve w Wed as backup."
Shanklin added later than the launch window tomorrow is 5:41 - 6:47 pm ET.
UPDATE, DECEMBER 2, 2013: The House passed the bill 376-5. All five "nays" were Republican. Of the ayes, 201 were Republican and 175 were Democrat. Fifty members did not vote: 25 Republicans and 25 Democrats.
ORIGINAL STORY, DECEMBER 1, 2013: The House is scheduled to debate and vote on H.R. 3547 tomorrow. It would extend the FAA's authority to indemnify commercial space launch services companies from certain levels of liability for third party claims that could arise from a launch accident. FAA's current authority expires on December 31.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee, would extend the indemnification authority for one year. It is listed first of three bills due to be considered under suspension of the rules tomorrow on House Majority Leader Eric Cantor's website. The House meets at 2:00 pm ET, but votes are delayed until 6:00 pm ET.
The liability indemnification provision was originally enacted in 1988 and has been extended numerous times since then. It was due to expire last year, and at the last minute Congress extended it for one more year. Hence it is again about to expire.
The launch services and communications satellite industries are anxious to get the indemnification authority extended and want a longer extension or, better yet, to make the provision permanent. The bill was introduced shortly after a House SS&T hearing on this and other commercial space issues on November 20. In a joint statement, Smith and Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the Space Subcommittee, said they wanted a longer extension, but the top Democrat on the full committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), said they wanted more hearings before deciding to extend for more than one year.
The Senate version of the bill (S. 1753) would extend it for three years.
This article has been corrected since its original publication. See note at end.
The following events may be of interest in the week ahead. The House is in session. The Senate is in recess, scheduled to return next week.
During the Week
Tomorrow (Monday), the House is scheduled to vote on the bill (H.R. 3547) to extend third party liability indemnification for one year. It is the first of three bills to be considered under suspension of the rules. The House meets at 2:00 pm ET, but votes are postponed until 6:00 pm.
Also tomorrow, SpaceX may try again to launch the SES-8 communications satellite. Three attempts on Monday, November 25, and two on Thursday (Thanksgiving Day) didn't succeed for various reasons. The company has not officially announced a new launch date and time, saying only that Monday is the earliest it will go. The launch window is open from 5:41 - 7:07 pm ET if they are, indeed, ready to try again. A lot is riding on the success of this launch.
Also during the week, hopefully members of the budget conference committee will be trying to find a solution to the nation's deficit situation so the FY2014 budget, at least, can be finalized even if they cannot reach agreement on a long term solution. Whatever hope there was -- and it wasn't much -- is fading, however, as the committee's December 13 deadline nears. December 13 is also the last day the House is scheduled to be in session for this year. Since the Senate does not return until December 9, there is little time for anything to happen. The current Continuing Resolution expires on January 15, 2014, the day that another round of sequester cuts takes effect if Congress does not act to stop it. The story hasn't changed -- no one likes the sequester, but no agreement appears achievable on an alternative because Democrats want to reduce the deficit through a combination of spending cuts and tax increases while Republicans want only spending cuts.
Many House committees are holding hearings on Obamacare this week, but the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will have one on a more uplifting subject -- astrobiology -- on Wednesday.
Those and other events we know of as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.
Monday, December 2
Tuesday, December 3
Tuesday-Wednesday, December 3-4
Wednesday, December 4
Wednesday-Thursday, December 4-5
Thursday, December 5
Friday, December 6
CORRECTION: In an earlier version, we mistakenly listed the WSBR luncheon with Stephane Israel for December 4. Instead it was December 3. Our apologies.
UPDATE 2, November 30, 2013: SpaceX's Emily Shanklin replies that yes, "Monday is the earliest possible date." No other details. Meanwhile, Bill Harwood of CBS News reports that if the launch does, indeed, go on Monday, the launch window is 5:41 - 7:07 pm ET.
UPDATE: November 30, 2013. Latest word from several sources on Twitter (but not SpaceX itself) is that the launch will not take place until Monday at the earliest. We've asked SpaceX for an official update and will post it when we get it.
ORIGINAL STORY, November 29, 2013: SpaceX's website and Twitter feeds are silent, but other sources suggest that the company will try again tomorrow (Saturday) to launch SES-8.
The launch was scrubbed three times on Monday, and twice yesterday. The last words from @elonmusk yesterday were that they would bring the "rocket down [in order] to borescope engines" and "If the launch aborts" (as it did) it would be "a few days before the next attempt."
Not long after yesterday's scrub, however, word began circulating that another attempt might be made as early as tomorrow, Saturday, November 30. While SpaceX had nothing to say, @Jeff_Foust noted that the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex is advertising that the launch is scheduled for 6:46 pm EST tomorrow.
Not that there isn't a lot to be thankful for, and not that it wasn't an interesting day, but the two big space events that were supposed to take place this Thanksgiving Day fizzled out: Comet ISON and SpaceX's first launch to a geostationary transfer orbit.
Scientists were hoping that Comet ISON would survive its close encounter with the Sun early this afternoon Eastern Standard Time (EST), but it soon became clear that if any part of it did, it wasn't much. NASA had several of its spacecraft trained on the Sun to keep track of ISON as it came within a million miles of the Sun's surface, but for most of the critical time around 1:30 pm Eastern Standard Time (EST), nothing of the comet's nucleus was visible. After the time of the closest approach was well over and some scientists were calling it a day, something -- they still are not sure what -- was seen in an image from the NASA/ESA SOHO spacecraft that might possibly suggest that remnants might still be there. Scientists are continuing to debate it as Thursday draws to a close EST. Phil Plait, well known as the "Bad Astronomer" posted on his Slate site that "predicting comets is like predicting cats. Good luck with that."
The second big event was SpaceX's rescheduled launch of the SES-8 communications satellite, SpaceX's first attempt to place a satellite into geostationary transfer orbit. The countdown proceeded perfectly to a 5:39 pm EST launch, but an instant before T-0, the onboard computer aborted the launch. The launch window was 65 minutes long and SpaceX recycled the count hoping it could diagnose and remedy the problem and still launch today. It reset the clock to T-32 minutes and 7 seconds for a launch at 6:44 pm EST and resumed the count. But with just 48 seconds to go, the company called it off. SpaceX CTO Elon Musk tweeted (@elonmusk): "We called manual abort. Better to be paranoid than wrong. Bringing rocket down to borescope engines..." That means it will be a few days before they try again.