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House Passes Commercial Space Bill

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-May-2015 (Updated: 21-May-2015 08:07 PM)

The House passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262, today after a two-hour debate.  An amendment by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) to replace the language in H.R. 2262 with that in a related Senate bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday, S. 1297, was rejected.

The floor debate on the SPACE Act, which is sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), reflected the same deep divisions between Republicans and Democrats that were evident in the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee markup last week.  House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) are original co-sponsors of the legislation.

The committee marked up H.R 2262 and three other commercial space bills that were rolled together into the version of H.R. 2262 that was debated on the floor and passed today.  The other three were H.R. 1508 (property rights to materials mined on asteroids), H.R. 2261 (commercial remote sensing), and H.R. 2263 (renaming and expanding the duties of the Office of Space Commercialization in the Department of Commerce). 

As introduced, H.R. 2262 was a broadly-based update of the Commercial Space Launch Act and had only Republican sponsors.  It was approved by the committee on a party-line vote.  H.R. 1508, which was sponsored by a Republican and a Democrat (who does not serve on this committee), also passed on a party-line vote.  The other two bills were less controversial and were approved by voice vote.

Democratic complaints about the bills in general are both procedural and substantive.  House SS&T Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Edwards complained in committee and on the floor today that insufficient hearings were held on these topics and no subcommittee markups were held that might have informed the debate and led to better bills.  On the substantive side, they believe that the legislation gives industry everything it wants with scant attention, for example, to the safety of individuals who might fly on commercial human space vehicles.   They also object to the property rights provision for companies that want to mine asteroids, arguing that more consideration is needed of the implications for U.S. responsibilities under the Outer Space Treaty.

While Republicans proudly displayed letters from several commercial space companies and organizations that support the bill, Johnson did not find that surprising, protesting during the markup that the bill "came straight from industry."

Johnson and Edwards appealed to that industry to support the Edwards substitute amendment.  They argued that while the Senate bill is not perfect, it is sufficient and since it has bipartisan support, that is the bill the Senate will pass and the chance that the two chambers would iron out their differences in a conference committee are slim. Consequently, no bill would become law.  Johnson said in an op-ed in Space News yesterday that "I hope the members of the commercial space industry will recognize the golden, but fleeting, opportunity they have been given" and support the Edwards amendment.   Edwards echoed that today, saying her amendment offered "a golden opportunity to move past partisan posturing" and actually get a bill passed and signed into law.

During the debate, Jim Muncy (@JamesMuncy), a lobbyist for the commercial space industry, tweeted in response to @SpcPlcyOnline tweets summarizing Edwards' arguments, that "Rep Edwards is unfortunately mistaken.  Industry appreciates the Senate's work on S1297 and the House's work on HR2262" and "Industry prefers for the process to continue, presumably to a conference."

The Edwards amendment was defeated 173-236 on largely party lines.  For Democrats, 170 voted in favor of the amendment and three against.  For Republicans, three voted in favor and 233 against.

Six other relatively minor amendments were adopted during floor debate by voice vote.  The texts of all the amendments that were "made in order" for the floor debate are on the House Rules Committee's website.

The bill, as amended, passed the House with more Democratic support.  The vote was 284-133, with 48 Democrats voting in favor and 130 Democrats against, and 236 Republicans voting in favor and three against.

House SS&T Democrats issued a press release after the vote asserting that the bill takes an "unbalanced approach" and is "heavily skewed towards industry's desires." 

House SS&T Republicans issued a press release praising passage of the bill and the bipartisan support in the final vote.  Committee chairman Smith said the bill "will encourage the private sector to launch rockets, take risks, and shoot for the heavens."

The Senate bill approved by the Senate Commerce Committee covers some of the same topics as the House bill, but especially with the infusion of the other three House bills into H.R. 2262, the two pieces of legislation are quite different.  One major difference is the length of the "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight during which the FAA is prohibited from issuing new regulations.  The current prohibition ends on September 30, 2015.  The Senate bill extends it to 2020.  The House bill extends it to 2025.  Advocates of the more lengthy extension (some of whom want the prohibition to be permanent) argue that new regulations could stifle this new industry and experience is needed to inform any new regulations.  Those who want a shorter extension insist that the FAA must be able to step in to ensure safety as the industry evolves.

Bolden: "If We Don't Pull Together, We're Not Going to Mars"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-May-2015 (Updated: 18-May-2015 07:23 PM)

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden made an impassioned plea today for Congress and the White House to work together or the goal of sending humans to Mars will never be realized.

Bolden's remarks to the Space Transportation Association (STA) were loosely focused on the status of congressional deliberations over NASA's FY2016 budget request, but he spent most of his time talking about the future of human exploration and the goal of sending people to Mars in the 2030s.  President Obama proclaimed that goal in an April 2010 speech at Kennedy Space Center and Congress agreed in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, but the two ends of Pennsylvania Avenue continue to argue over NASA priorities and what level of specificity the agency should have at this stage on the steps to getting there.

The 2015 NASA Authorization Act that passed the House in February (H.R. 810) requires NASA to submit a "Human Exploration Roadmap" to Congress within 180 days of the bill becoming law.  It includes an extensive list of what the roadmap must contain and requires it be updated every 2 years.

A variety of terms are used to describe the plan or pathway to get to Mars, including roadmap, strategy, architecture, and design reference mission or architecture.  Each has its own nuanced definition.  Today Bolden used the word "architecture" and flatly refused to provide one, insisting it would be "irresponsible" because it is too early to "commit to a specific architecture."  He believes we are not ready to go Mars now.   Experience needs to be gained by operating in cis-lunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) and technologies will advance in the meantime. 

The most recent NASA design reference architecture (DRA) was issued in 2009. Currently NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate has PowerPoint presentations on its "Evolvable Mars Campaign" and soon will issue a document entitled "Pioneering Space" to explain the outlines of what it expects to do in the next several decades.  It uses "Journey to Mars" as an overarching slogan.  They are not specific enough to qualify as an "architecture" or "roadmap," however.

What is most needed is for Congress and the White House to work together, Bolden stressed.  Half way through his talk and again at the end he implored: "If we don't pull together, we're not going to Mars."

On other topics, Bolden --

  • said the "biggest area of heartburn" between the Obama Administration and Congress right now regarding NASA's FY2016 budget request is earth science funding.  Several times he expounded on the achievements of NASA's earth science program -- mentioning the U.S.-Japan Global Precipitation Measurement (GPM) and the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) missions in particular.  He commented that NASA does not make earth science policy and tries to stay out of its politics, the agency just wants to provide the best science in the world: "Decimating earth science and saying we're going to go to Mars is not the right way to do it."  (The House Science, Space and Technology Committee approved, on a party-line vote, a 2016-2017 NASA authorization bill that has deep cuts to NASA's earth science program on the basis that NASA's unique mission is space exploration, not studying Earth.)
  • defended the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the decision for the United States not to return humans to the lunar surface.  Humans on the lunar surface makes sense for activities like in-situ resource utilization, but he wants the United States to "empower" international and commercial partners to take on that task.  NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) can take "all kinds of stuff" to lunar orbit, but the partners need to develop the lander:  "The United States can't do everything."
  • expressed confidence in the Russians and his "friend" Roscosmos head Igor Komarov despite recent failures.  His only concern is if these failures signify a breakdown in quality control.  NASA's ISS program manager Mike Suffredini is taking part in Russia's investigation of the Progress M-27M failure, so he feels confident that NASA will have the information it needs.
  • stressed the need for continued operations of the International Space Station (ISS) through at least 2024, but also for the commercial sector to determine what comes next for low Earth orbit infrastructure because ISS has a finite lifetime and "NASA is getting out" of that business.
  • urged Congress again to fully fund the $1.24 billion request for commercial crew (the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee approved $1 billion instead).
  • responded to a question about whether a robotic Mars sample return mission is required before sending humans to Mars (to provide better knowledge of the properties of the Martian surface) with a firm no.  He says that he knows many scientists disagree with that point of view, but he is adamant that step is not necessary, just as obtaining a sample of the lunar surface was not required before the Apollo 11 crew landed on the Moon.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 18-24, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2015 (Updated: 17-May-2015 06:08 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 18-24, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The House and Senate will be rushing this week to complete a lot of legislative business before the Memorial Day recess.  The House, in committee and on the floor, will continue work on FY2016 appropriations bills against Democratic objections and a Presidential veto threat because Republicans used a gimmick to add money to the defense budget above the Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps, but will not add a dime for non-defense spending.  Democrats want to do away with the BCA caps and the associated sequester threat entirely, but the Republicans are doing it only for defense.  Their tactic is to add money to the "Overseas Contingency Operations" (OCO) account that does not count against the caps and change the rules so the money can be spent for routine defense purposes rather than only for executing the war in Afghanistan, for example.  The end result is expected to be another long, drawn out budget process as Democrats and Republican fiscal conservatives (who also object to the OCO tactic, but want to keep the caps) battle in Congress and the President readies his veto pen.

For now, however, the House Appropriations Committee continues marking up FY2016 appropriations bills and sending them to the floor for the whole House to consider.   This week the full committee will mark up the Commerce-Justice-Science bill that includes NASA and NOAA (subcommittee markup was last week), while the defense subcommittee marks up the defense bill.  Both markups are on Wednesday morning; the defense markup is closed.

The House itself will take up two space-related bills that have been approved by the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) has bipartisan support and will be brought up under suspension of the rules on Tuesday.  That means it is expected to easily garner aye votes from at least two-thirds of the Members. The Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262 is quite the opposite.   Approved in committee on a strictly party-line basis, it will be considered on the House floor under regular order.  That means it will go first to the House Rules Committee to determine what (if any) amendments will be allowed. The Rules Committee meets on Tuesday afternoon and floor debate is scheduled for Thursday.

The Senate will be busy, too.   On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will mark up the Commercial Space Launch Act (S. 1297) and the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act (S. 1331).   S. 1297 and H.R. 2262 have similar goals -- to update the existing Commercial Space Launch Act -- but different approaches, and the Senate bill has bipartisan support.  S. 1331 and H. R. 1561 also have similar goals, but different approaches.  One goal is improving how NOAA acquires satellites and encouraging NOAA to use more commercial weather satellite data. 

Congress has a lot of interest in commercial weather data these days. The House SS&T Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing specifically on that topic on Wednesday morning.   Ah yes, Wednesday morning.  It will take three of you to cover everything or skilled multitasking to watch the webcasts (just about all congressional hearings and markups are webcast on the respective committee's website, except for closed meetings to discuss classified matters, of course).  The House hearing is at 10:00, the CJS bill markup up at 10:30, and the Senate markup also is at 10:30.  (The defense appropriations markup is at 9:30 that day, but is closed.)

Not everything happens in Washington, of course.   The National Space Society's annual International Space Development Conference  (ISDC 2015) will take place in Toronto, Canada, from May 20-24 with a great program of speakers.

Those and other events that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Tuesday, May 19

Wednesday, May 20

Wednesday - Sunday, May 20-24

Thursday, May 21

Komarov to Head Proton Failure Investigation, Second Try For ISS Reboost Tonight EDT

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2015 (Updated: 17-May-2015 12:07 PM)

Russia is moving forward in its attempts to understand and remedy the two setbacks it suffered yesterday -- the failure of Progress M-26M to boost the International Space Station's (ISS's) orbit and the failure of a Proton-M rocket that destroyed Mexico's MexSat-1 communications satellite.

A second attempt at the ISS orbit reboost will be made tonight (May 17) beginning at 8:30 pm EDT (May 18, 03:30 Moscow Time) according to Russia's official news agency TASS.  The Progress M-26M spacecraft that is attached to the ISS was supposed to raise the ISS orbit by 2.8 kilometers yesterday (Moscow Time, Friday evening EDT) by firing its engines for about 15 minutes.  The routine operation failed, however, because the engines did not ignite. 

Separately, Roscosmos head Igor Komarov will chair the Russian State Commission investigating the failure of a Proton-M rocket yesterday.  The Proton-M's third-stage failed 497 seconds into the launch; it, the Briz-M upper stage and MexSat-1 fell back to Earth from an altitude of 161 kilometers.  Russian authorities searched the Baikal region of Russia for debris that might have survived, but most burned up during reentry.

Mexican telecommunications officials, the customer for this commercial launch brokered through International Launch Services (ILS), were philosophical about the loss of their satellite, which was fully insured.  They remain confident they will be able to provide the services promised by the MEXSAT system once the next satellite in the series (called Morelos-3 or MexSat-2) is launched later this year. That launch will be on an Atlas V from Cape Canaveral provided by Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services.

The State Commission is charged with finding out what went wrong and making recommendations on who to hold responsible.  Komarov replaced Oleg Ostapenko as head of Roscosmos in January after Ostapenko was relieved of duties because of other failures, the latest in a series of Roscosmos directors and industry officials to lose their jobs.  Komarov is the fourth Roscosmos director since NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was sworn into office in 2009.

The Proton failure is another blow to Russia's once-solid reputation for reliable launch vehicles, one more in a growing list of failures of several models of Russian rockets since December 2010 that has shaken confidence in the Russian space industry.

The January reorganization put Komarov in charge not only of the Roscosmos space agency, but of the Russian space industry, combining the two jobs into one.  He now must solve three anomalies at once -- the April 28 Soyuz 2.1a launch failure that doomed the Progress M-27M cargo spacecraft and yesterday's failures of the Progress M-26M ISS reboost and the Proton-M launch.

Mexican Telecom Authorities Undeterred Despite MexSat-1 Loss

Laura M. Delgado
Posted: 16-May-2015 (Updated: 17-May-2015 09:29 PM)

In a press conference following the failed launch attempt of Mexico’s MexSat-1 on Saturday, leaders of Mexico’s Secretariat of Communications and Transportation (SCT) celebrated the government’s foresight in acquiring comprehensive launch insurance, allowing the government to recover 100 percent of its investment in the development and launch of the satellite.

Boeing-built MexSat-1 (Centenario) was destroyed when a Russian Proton-M rocket launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome on May 16, 2015 failed at 497 seconds after launch. International Launch Services (ILS) is the provider for Proton-M launch services.

The second of a planned constellation of three satellites for fixed and mobile communications called the MexSat system, Centenario was designed to meet national security and civil communication needs, including emergency services, tele-education, and tele-medicine. The first satellite in the constellation, MexSat-3 (Bicentenario), was successfully launched in December 2012.  According to an SCT press release, the third satellite, Morelos 3, is slated for an October 22, 2015, launch from Cape Canaveral through a service provided by Lockheed Martin Commercial Launch Services.

During the press conference Gerardo Ruiz Esparza, Secretary of Communications and Transportation, emphasized that the key benefit of having these satellites is not being in the space age, but having the satellite services. For the country to expand in this high-technology area, Mexico will need to learn to live with its inherent risks, he added. SCT’s foresight in fully covering the satellite through private insurance means there is “no loss” for the government of the republic. Ruiz Esparza added that with the upcoming launch of the Morelos 3 satellite, the services that Centenario would have provided are “practically guaranteed.”

Mexico invested an estimated $400 million in Centenario, $90 million of which covered the launch service. Ruiz Esparza was asked to name the amount spent in insurance coverage, a figure he said he did not have on hand and would hesitate to share given the ongoing investigation. In response to a question about the selection of ILS as a launch provider despite the recent issues with the Proton rockets, Ruiz Esparza explained that the service was contracted in February 2012 and that rescinding on that contract would have led to a significant penalty of around $60 million.

A video of the press conference (in Spanish) is available on YouTube.

Editor’s note: English translations provided by Laura Delgado.

Two More Failures in One Day Bedevil Russian Space Program-UPDATED

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 16-May-2015 (Updated: 16-May-2015 01:51 PM)

Russia's space program suffered two more failures in the past day.  First, the engines of a Progress cargo spacecraft attached to the International Space Station (ISS) did not fire when commanded to raise the orbit of the ISS.  Then, the launch of a Proton rocket carrying a Mexican communications satellite failed.  These are on top of the failure of a different Progress cargo ship that made an uncontrolled reentry over the Pacific Ocean last week.

Russia launches four or five Progress cargo spacecraft to the ISS each year.  Progress M-26M is currently attached to the ISS.  These spacecraft deliver food, fuel and other supplies and also are used to periodically raise the space station's orbit by firing their engines.  It is a routine reboost operation that dozens of Progress spacecraft have executed for space stations beginning with the Soviet Union's Salyut 6 in the late 1970s and progressing through the Salyut 7, Mir and now ISS programs.  

This time, however, the Progress M-26M engines did not fire upon command.  The engines were supposed to ignite at 4:14 am Moscow Time May 16 (9:14 pm May 15 EDT) and fire for about 15 minutes to raise the ISS orbit by 2.8 kilometers to an altitude of 401.8 kilometers.  The most recent rebsoost was on May 6 and another is planned for June 7.   Russia's official news agency TASS said later in the day that experts at Russia's Mission Control Center had identified the problem and another attempt will be made on May 18.  It quoted an unnamed source as saying "I would rather not name the reason" for the failure.

This incident follows the failure of Progress M-27M to reach the ISS.  Russia is still investigating that failure as well.  The problem occurred when Progress M-27M separated from the third stage of its Soyuz 2.1a rocket during launch on April 28, but Russian specialists still do not know why.  The spacecraft made an uncontrolled reentry on May 7 EDT.  Changes were made to the schedule for crew and cargo launches to the ISS while they try to determine the cause.

Now there is a third anomaly to solve.  A Russian Proton-M rocket with a Briz-M upper stage launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome at 05:47 GMT (1:47 am EDT) this morning to send Mexico's MexSat-1 (or Centenario) to geostationary orbit.  The Proton's third stage failed at 497 seconds according to Roscosmos, however.  The third stage, the Briz-M upper stage, and the MexSat-1 satellite all fell to Earth over the Baikal region of Russia.  Most of the debris is presumed to have burned up during the descent from 161 kilometers altitude.  Russian authorities are searching the area, but no fragments have been located.

Russian Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev immediately directed that a State Commission be established to investigate the accident "and submit proposals on personal and financial responsibility."

TASS said preliminary indications are that the "steering engines of the third stage" failed.   A Proton failure exactly one year ago doomed Russia's Ekspress-AM4R communications satellite because of a bad bearing in the turbo pump of a third stage engine.

Proton launches are marketed worldwide by International Launch Services (ILS) based in Reston, VA. Roscosmos fairly quickly posted on its website that "an emergency situation occurred."  Several hours later ILS acknowledged the failure and said that it will create its own Failure Review Oversight Board that will work in parallel with Russia's State Commission.  Roscosmos said the "satellite and its launch" are insured by the customer, while third party liability is insured by the Russian side.

Russia's launch vehicles once were considered among the most reliable in the world, but repeated failures since December 2010 have tarnished their reputation. The Russian government has fired people at Roscosmos and in industry and repeatedly reorganized the aerospace sector, most recently combining the government and industry sectors under a single individual, but the failures continue.

Editor's Note:  This story, originally posted at 9:41 am ET, May 16, 2015, was updated throughout at 1:15 pm with additional information. 

SASC Completes Markup: Digs in on Replacing RD-180, Not Convinced About DMSP-20

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015 (Updated: 14-May-2015 08:45 PM)

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) completed markup of its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today.   Most of the subcommittee markups, including that of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, and full committee markup were closed, so the release of a committee fact sheet and a press conference by chairman John McCain (R-AZ) today provide the first public view of what it contains.  Space programs, especially launch vehicles, warranted considerable attention.

McCain and others on the committee, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), have been leaders in Congress to move the Air Force away from using Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.  RD-180s power the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket.  McCain also has been a crucial supporter of SpaceX's determination to compete against ULA for launching national security satellites.  SASC led efforts in last year's NDAA to set a deadline of 2019 for using RD-180s, which the Air Force is seeking to modify so it has more time to build a new American engine, integrate it into a launch vehicle, test and certify it for launching national security satellites.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) went along with the Air Force request in its version of the FY2016 NDAA, which is being debated by the House right now.  SASC did not follow suit.   Instead, it "revalidates" Section 1608 of last year's NDAA, which sets the deadline, although waivers are allowed under certain circumstances.  The SASC bill "limits the use of Russian rocket engines, allowing for as few as zero but as many as nine," according to the press release.  The bill has other provisions aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian engines as soon as possible.

McCain said at the press conference, as he has in other venues, that he does not want American dollars going to "cronies" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Today he said Putin is "dismembering a country as we speak," referring to Ukraine.  (His comments are at the very end of the press conference).  He also called the issue of the rocket engines and ULA a "classic example of the military-industrial complex" and said that SpaceX has said it can have a replacement for RD-180s by 2017, a probable reference to SpaceX's plans for its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to make its first flight this year, but it would take some time for it to be certified to launch national security satellites (which are very expensive and critically necessary so launch failures are not easily tolerated).

SASC also expressed caution about DOD's plans to launch the last of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites. The Air Force decided last year that it did not need DMSP-20, but changed its mind this year and now wants to launch it.  At an April 29 hearing, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. John Hyten said several factors led to their revised decision even though it will cost "millions of dollars": the Europeans have decided not to replace a geostationary weather satellite DOD has been using to support its operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it will give the Air Force more time to decide on the future of its weather satellite program, it will provide an additional competitive space launch opportunity, and people within the national security community who deal with weather issues on a day to day basis "very, very much want to see that satellite launched."

SASC was not convinced.   The bill prohibits the use of funds for the DMSP program or for launch of DMSP-20 until the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that "non-material or lower cost solutions are insufficient."

On other matters, SASC  --

  • approves $20 million for the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, "an increase of $13.5 million to match the previous year funding level"
  • requires the President to establish an interagency process to develop a policy to deter adversaries in space
  • requires the Secretary of Defense to designate an individual to be the Principal Space Control Advisor
  • establishes a council to "review and be responsible for" DOD's positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) enterprise (GPS is a PNT system)
  • requires a plan for consolidating acquisition of commercial communication satellite services
  • requires an analysis of alternatives for replacing the Wideband Global Satellite System

Cause of Progress M-27M Failure Remains Elusive

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015 (Updated: 14-May-2015 09:07 AM)

Russian space experts continue to try to determine exactly what went wrong when Progress M-27M and its Soyuz 2.1a rocket separated on April 28.  Telemetry data reportedly are not enough to solve the mystery.

Russia's official Tass news agency quotes an unnamed Russian space industry source as saying that "the telemetry data are not enough" and members of the State Commission investigating the incident are going to the companies that manufactured various components to inspect others from the same batches to try and recreate whatever went wrong.

Roscosmos and NASA indicated earlier this week that the investigation would finish by May 22, but Tass reported today that may slip.  "True, some findings may be presented by May 22," it quotes the industry source, but "specialists will keep working at individual enterprises after that date."

Progress M-27M was launched on April 28, but something went wrong when it separated from the third stage of its Soyuz launch vehicle that left both of them in incorrect orbits and the robotic cargo spacecraft spinning.   Control of the spacecraft was lost and it reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 7 Eastern Standard Time (May 8 Moscow Time).  Initial speculation that the third stage exploded was ruled out in a preliminary report from the State Commission earlier this week. Roscosmos said on May 12  that determining the cause would require in depth computational and theoretical studies as well as modeling.

Russia, NASA and the other International Space Station (ISS) partners agreed on Tuesday to a revised schedule of crew and cargo flights to and from the ISS.  The return of Soyuz TMA-15M with three ISS crew members, planned for May 13, will wait until early June and the launch of their replacements was delayed from May 26 to July 24.   A different version of the Soyuz rocket is used for transporting crews to the ISS. 

The revised schedule calls for accelerating the next launch of a Progress cargo mission from August 6 to early July.   Progress M-27M was the second of four planned Progress launches to the ISS this year.  It was carrying three tons of food, fuel and other cargo.  NASA says that the loss of the spacecraft is not affecting U.S. operations on ISS, but Roscosmos has not indicated whether its crew activities are impacted.  

In addition to Russia's Progress, ISS is resupplied by two U.S. commercial cargo vehicles -- SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus -- and Japan's HTV.  A Dragon is currently attached to ISS and three more launches are scheduled this year.  An HTV launch is planned for August and a Cygnus is expected by the end of the year.   NASA said on Tuesday, however, that the schedule of launches for the rest of the year remains under review.

NASA refers to Progress M-27M as Progress 59 because it is the 59th Progress to service the ISS, but many more Progress missions have been conducted since the first was launched in 1977.  Progress cargo ships supported the Soviet/Russian space stations Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir before ISS.

House SS&T Approves Four Commercial Space Bills

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-May-2015 (Updated: 13-May-2015 11:35 PM)

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee approved four commercial space bills today after lengthy debate largely along partisan lines.  Thirteen amendments were offered to the main bill, the SPACE Act (H.R. 2262), an update of the Commercial Space Launch Act.  While Republicans touted a long list of endorsements from commercial space companies, Rep. Eddie Bernie Johnson (D-TX) did not find that surprising, protesting that "the bill came straight from industry."

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE) Act is a broad bill with many provisions and it engendered lengthy debate.  House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) are original co-sponsors.   Perhaps the most significant amendment adopted to that bill was proposed by Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA) to extend until 2025 the "learning period" for commercial human spaceflight as well as the FAA's authority to indemnify commercial space launch companies against certain amounts of third party liability in the event of a launch accident.

The learning period refers to a span of years when the FAA is not allowed to promulgate new regulations governing commercial human spaceflight that might stifle that industry's growth as it gains experience.  That period is set to expire on September 30, 2015.  The indemnification provision means that the government would pay for certain amounts of damages to uninvolved individuals in the event of a launch accident (the commercial companies must purchase insurance to cover other amounts).  The government has had Indemnification authority for commercial launches since 1988, but Congress extends it for set periods of time rather than permanently so it can periodically review whether it is still needed.  Current authority ends on December 31, 2016.

As introduced, H.R. 2262 would have extended the learning period and third-party indemnification to 2023.   Knight argued for another two years to provide stability for the commercial industry.  Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) offered amendments to reduce the time to 5 years for both provisions so Congress could have more opportunity to review the issues as the industry evolves.  She pointed out that the Senate version of the bill would extend those provisions only until 2020.  Nonetheless, Knight's amendment won.

The Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act, H.R. 1508, sponsored by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL), also was particularly controversial.  It grants property rights to materials mined on asteroids by U.S. companies.  The bill is co-sponsored by a Democrat, Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA), but he is not a member of House SS&T and Democrats on this committee strongly opposed it.   Johnson offered a substitute that would have called for a study of the issues associated with property rights in space, noting that at a hearing last year, a highly respected space lawyer, Joanne Gabrynowicz, asserted a prior version of the bill would violate U.S. obligations under the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.   Johnson said that Gabrynowicz reviewed the current bill and had similar concerns.  Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) went further and said "the bill is unconstitutional, not even a close question."  Posey countered that there have been enough studies and what is needed now is action to ensure U.S. leadership in this pursuit.  As for the constitutionality question, he repeated a point made by Grayson that the founding fathers could not have imagined a time when laws were needed about mining other bodies in the solar system, and said that raising this as an issue was simply an obstructionist tactic.  Johnson's amendment failed on a party-line vote.

The other two bills were less controversial.   Rep. Bridenstine's (R-OK) Commercial Remote Sensing Act (H.R. 2261) and Rep. Rohrabacher's (R-CA) Office of Space Commerce Act (H.R. 2263) passed easily, with a relatively minor Grayson amendment adopted to H.R. 2261.  That bill seeks to facilitate NOAA granting licenses to commercial remote sensing companies in a timely manner.  H.R. 2263 would change the name of NOAA's Office of Space Commercialization to the Office of Space Commerce and expand its responsibilities.

The texts of all the bills and amendments and the disposition of the amendments are posted on the committee's website.

Space Station Crew Return Delayed Until June, Next Launch Until July

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-May-2015 (Updated: 12-May-2015 04:44 PM)

NASA and its partners in the International Space Station (ISS) program decided today to extend the mission of three ISS crew members who were supposed to return to Earth tomorrow and postpone the launch of their replacements. The schedule change was prompted by the failure of Russia's robotic Progress M-27M spacecraft last week.

Progress M-27M reentered over the Pacific Ocean on May 7 Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) and Roscosmos proposed changes to ISS crew and cargo flights at that time.  NASA announced today agreement among all the partners to the revised schedule, though exact dates have not been determined.  The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan, and 11 European countries working through the European Space Agency (ESA).

NASA's Terry Virts, ESA's Samantha Cristoforetti and Roscosmos' Anton Shkaplerov were scheduled to return to Earth on their Soyuz TMA-15 spacecraft tomorrow (May 13).  The exact date for their rescheduled return in early June will be determined later.  The launch of their replacements on Soyuz TMA-17M will be postponed from May 26 to late July.   The three other ISS crew members now aboard ISS are NASA's Scott Kelly, and Roscosmos' Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka.  Kelly and Kornienko are part of the first one-year mission aboard ISS and will not return until March 2016.  Padalka is currently scheduled to come home in September.

Progress M-27M was launched on April 28, 2015 EDT and immediately ran into trouble.  A malfunction at the time it separated from the third stage of its Soyuz 2.1a rocket left both in incorrect orbits and the Progress spacecraft spinning.  One theory is that the third stage exploded, debris punctured the spacecraft's fuel line, and venting fuel put Progress into a spin.  Roscosmos said today that the State Commission investigating the accident will conclude its work by May 22.

Progress M-27M was the second of four planned Progress cargo missions to the ISS this year.  The next had been scheduled for August 6, but the new schedule will accelerate that by about a month.

The new plan is as follows:

  • Return of Soyuz TMA-15M (Virts, Cristoforetti, Shkaplerov) in early June instead of on May 13
  • Progress M-28M launch in early July instead of August 6
  • Launch of Soyuz TMA-17M with Kjell Lindgren (NASA), Kimiya Yui (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) and Oleg Kononenko (Roscosmos) in late July instead of on May 26

NASA refers to Progress M-27M as Progress 59 because it is the 59th Progress to resupply ISS, but the Progress spacecraft has been in use by Russia since 1977 so there have been many more flights than that.  It was carrying three tons of food, fuel and other supplies for the ISS crew, but NASA insists that U.S. operations are not affected by the failure.  

A U.S. SpaceX Dragon cargo craft is currently attached to the ISS, and three more are scheduled this year.  Japan's HTV cargo spacecraft is scheduled for launch in August and the U.S. Orbital ATK Cygnus cargo spacecraft is expected to be launched by the end of the year.  NASA said, however, that all of the dates for the remaining flights to ISS this year are under review.