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White House Wants DOT in Charge of Commercial Space "Mission Authorization"

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-May-2016 (Updated: 02-May-2016 11:49 PM)

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) is proposing to Congress that the Department of Transportation (DOT) be placed in charge of "mission authorization" for new types of private sector space activities in earth orbit and beyond.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has been floated as a likely candidate for this role for quite some time. The FAA is part of DOT. 

The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) signed into law last November required OSTP to submit a report to Congress assessing current and near-term commercial activities in space.  OSTP was also directed to recommend an approach for authorizing and continually supervising those activities as required by Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  The term "mission authorization" now is used to refer to authorizing and supervising commercial on-orbit activities such as satellite servicing (including refueling, repair, or adding end-of-life extension modules to existing spacecraft), building orbital habitats, or extracting resources from the Moon or asteroids.

OSTP submitted the report to Congress on April 4.  It includes an appendix with draft legislative language designating DOT as the federal agency to grant such authorizations, maintain a registry of those authorizations, and require holders of such authorizations to report on their activities periodically and if there is any material change to their operations.  The Secretary of Transportation is required to coordinate with the Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Secretary of Commerce, the NASA Administrator, the Director of National Intelligence, and other appropriate government departments and agencies.

The report does not specify the FAA or FAA/AST, but FAA/AST is the only office within DOT that currently has responsibility for issuing space-related licenses.  It facilitates and regulates commercial space launches and reentries.  FAA/AST Associate Administrator George Nield has spoken in many venues about expanding that office's regulatory responsibilities to include on-orbit and deep space commercial activities.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is a strong advocate for that idea.

Nield and Bridenstine also have proposed that FAA/AST assume responsibility for non-military space situational awareness (SAA) duties.  DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JPSoC) tracks objects in orbit and issues "conjunction analyses" -- warnings that a collision may occur -- to other U.S. government agencies, other governments, and commercial entities.  Bridenstine argues that JSPoC needs to focus on its military mission of "fighting and winning wars," not on warning NASA or other space operators about potential collisions.  He sees a transition where a commercial Conjunction Analysis and Warning Center, overseen by FAA/AST, would fuse unclassified DOD data with data from international partners and commercial operators.   At a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) last week, Nield said that "senior Air Force and DOD leadership are right with us on this one," although "not everyone" in DOD shares the vision.  He suggested a quick, inexpensive pilot program to answer questions about how much it would cost and whether the data are accurate. for example.

The OSTP proposal takes a step in that direction. It would authorize the Secretary of Transportation, in coordination with the Secretary of Defense, to examine planned and actual operational trajectories of space objects and advise satellite operators so as to prevent collisions.

Bridenstine introduced the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) on April 14 (H.R. 4945) that is very broad and goes further than the OSTP proposal with regard to SSA.  In the longer term, for example, he wants FAA/AST to become a Space Traffic Management (STM) entity with authority to compel operators to move their spacecraft to avoid collisions, though that is some years off.  He has stated that he does not expect his bill to pass en toto, but instead is a repository for provisions that will be inserted into other legislation.

The OSTP proposal would not affect activities that are already regulated by the FAA (commercial launch and reentry), the Federal Communications Commission (commercial communications satellites), or NOAA (commercial remote sensing satellites). It also stresses that the intent is not to establish a comprehensive regulatory framework -- that would be premature -- but to "establish a process no more burdensome that is necessary to enable the United States Government to authorize these pioneering space activities in conformity with its treaty obligations, and to safeguard our public interests, such as national security."

Commercial space advocates argue that although the private sector does not seek government regulation, investors want regulatory certainty before they put their money on the table.  Therefore clarification is needed on how the government plans to fulfill its obligations under Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty to help incentivize potential investors.  Hence the requirement that OSTP make these recommendations, which puts the ball back in Congress's court.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy May 2-6, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2016 (Updated: 01-May-2016 03:52 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of May 2-6, 2016.  The House and Senate are in recess this week.

During the Week

With Congress taking a week off from legislative business (while they are back in their States and districts), we have a chance to take a break from the intense activity of the past few weeks.  Not that there are no space policy events coming up, but it is much more manageable this week.

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) will tour the Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) facilities at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, VA on Tuesday.  Orbital ATK launches its Antares rocket from Pad-01 at MARS, which is owned by the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority (VCSFA).   Mikulski will be joined by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and other officials from NASA, VCSFA, and Orbital ATK.  Mikulski represents Maryland, not Virginia, of course, but Wallops is close to the Maryland-Virginia border and many of the workers reside in Maryland.  The press release does not mention that any of it will be televised or webcast, unfortunately.  If we hear differently, we will add it to our calendar post.

Orbital ATK is getting ready for a hot fire test of its re-engined Antares rocket at MARS in preparation for the Antares return-to-flight this summer.  The last Antares launch ended in failure on October 28, 2014.  The company has changed engines -- from old Russian NK-33s refurbished by Aerojet and redesignated AJ26 to new Russian RD-181s.   Orbital ATK will hold its quarterly investors conference call on Thursday morning where more information may be available about the timing of the hot fire test and the next launch.

Also on Thursday, the Secure World Foundation (SWF) will hold a panel discussion on "Asteroids, Mining, and Policy" with an impressive list of speakers.  Those events are not livestreamed, but SWF typically records them and posts them on their website later.  One of the speakers is Rep. Jim Bridenstine's space staffer, Christopher Ingraham.  Bridenstine was one of the key Members of Congress in getting the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act passed last year, with its asteroid property rights provisions.  Should be very interesting.  Be sure to RSVP by tomorrow (May 2) if you want to attend in person.

Those events are listed below.  Check back throughout the week for additional events we become aware of and add to our Events of Interest list.

Tuesday, May 3

  • Mikulski, Bolden et al Tour MARS Facilities at Wallops, NASA Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, VA

Thursday, May 5

  • Orbital ATK Releases 1Q 2016 Financial Results, 9:00 am ET (webcast)
  • Asteroids, Mining and Policy (Secure World Foundation), Carnegie Institute for International Peace, 1779 Massachusetts Ave., NW, Washington, DC, 12:00-2:00 pm ET (RSVP by May 2)

ULA Traces Atlas V Anomaly to Malfunctioning RD-180 Valve

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Apr-2016 (Updated: 29-Apr-2016 06:25 PM)

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today that the anomaly on its Atlas V rocket during the launch of Orbital ATK's OA-6 cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) was due to a malfunctioning valve.  The Atlas V first stage under performed, but the Centaur upper stage was able to compensate and OA-6 reached the ISS successfully.

During the March 22 launch, the Atlas V first stage shut down six seconds early.  The Centaur upper stage rescued the mission by firing 60 seconds longer than planned, placing Orbital ATK's Cygnus cargo spacecraft into its proper orbit nonetheless.  Cygnus reached the ISS on schedule.

ULA quickly determined the problem was in the RD-180 engine's fuel system and decided to postpone the next scheduled Atlas V launch until it understood and remedied the problem.  The Navy's fifth Multi-User Objective System (MUOS-5) communications satellite was scheduled for launch on May 5.  That date slipped to May 12 and then indefinitely.

Today, ULA issued a statement that the RD-180's Mixture Ratio Control Valve assembly had caused a reduction in fuel flow during launch and all RD-180 engines are now being inspected.   It did not announce a new launch date for MUOS-5, saying only that the launch will be in "early summer."   The company asserted that all its Atlas V launches planned for 2016 "are expected to be successfully executed by the end of the year."   That includes NASA's robotic asteroid sample return mission OSIRIS-REx, scheduled for September.

Russia's RD-180 engines are currently the topic of considerable controversy.  Following Russia's actions in Ukraine, Congress and the Administration became determined to end U.S. reliance on Russian rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites.   Efforts are underway to develop a U.S.-built engine to replace it, but there are disputes about the timing of transitioning from the RD-180 powered Atlas V rockets to something new.

The full text of the emailed ULA statement is as follows:

Centennial, Colo., (April 29, 2016) -- ULA successfully delivered the OA-6 Cygnus spacecraft to its precise orbit as planned on March 22. During the launch, the system experienced a premature first stage shutdown. Atlas is a robust system. The Centaur upper stage compensated for the first stage anomaly, delivering Cygnus to a precise orbit, well within the required accuracy. The ULA engineering team has reviewed the data and has determined an anomaly with the RD-180 Mixture Ratio Control Valve (MRCV) assembly caused a reduction in fuel flow during the boost phase of the flight. In addition to analysis and testing, all RD-180 engines are being inspected.

Last Friday, in preparation for the MUOS-5 launch, the Atlas V completed the Launch Vehicle on Stand (LVOS) operation, erecting the Atlas V into the Vertical Integration Facility at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. LVOS will allow configuration of the vehicle to support RD-180 engine inspections and confirm all engine components are ready for launch. The Atlas V MUOS-5 launch is targeted for early summer; a new launch date has not been secured on the Eastern Range. The impact to the remainder of the Atlas V manifest is in review with new launch dates being coordinated with our customers. All missions manifested for 2016 are expected to be successfully executed by the end of the year, including OSIRIS-REx, which will remain in early September to support its critical science window.

 

HASC Sides With Air Force, ULA on RD-180 Rocket Engines

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Apr-2016 (Updated: 28-Apr-2016 10:57 PM)

In the wee hours overnight, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved an amendment regarding the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) use of Russian RD-180 engines for its Atlas V rocket.  The Atlas V launches many national security satellites.  Its Russian engines have been a source of contention since Russia annexed Crimea two years ago. The amendment favors ULA and the Air Force versus ULA's competitor, SpaceX.  The committee also adopted an amendment allowing government funds to be spent on a new launch vehicle, not just a new engine.

HASC marked up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) beginning at 10:00 am ET on April 27 and ending more than 16 hours later at 2:34 am ET today (April 28).  The very last topic considered just prior to a series of postponed roll call votes was the RD-180 controversy.  HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) said it was because negotiations had been underway throughout that time to determine if a compromise could be reached.  Apparently it could not.

The fundamental debate has not changed over the past two years.  There is broad agreement in Congress, the Administration, and industry that the United States should not be dependent on Russian RD-180 rocket engines to launch U.S. national security satellites and that a U.S. alternative to the RD-180 should be built.  The debate is over the timing of the transition from RD-180 powered Atlas  V rockets to a rocket using a U.S.-built engine.

ULA has been a monopoly provider of national security launches using its Atlas V and Delta IV rockets since its creation in 2006.  ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing (Delta IV) and Lockheed Martin (Atlas V).  In 2015, SpaceX was certified to launch national security satellites in competition with ULA.  Yesterday it was formally awarded its first contract for launch of an Air Force GPS satellite.   SpaceX's $82.7 million price reportedly was 40 percent less than what ULA has been charging for GPS launches.

ULA did not bid against SpaceX for that launch, publicly arguing that, among other things, it was precluded from doing so because of the restrictions on how many RD-180 engines it could obtain. (Statements made later by a ULA official called that account into question, however, spurring a DOD Inspector General investigation into whether there were contracting improprieties. The investigation is ongoing.)

ULA officials have also indicated that it is difficult for them to compete against SpaceX on price.  The company is working to reduce costs by building a new rocket, Vulcan, which will use an American-built engine from either Blue Origin or Aerojet Rocketdyne.  The question is when Vulcan will be available.  Congress set 2019 as the date by which a new engine must be ready, and there is agreement that is achievable, but the Air Force and ULA argue that it will take 2-3 more years before a launch vehicle using the new engine is certified to launch expensive national security satellites.  They want to buy up to 18 more RD-180 engines to ensure the Atlas V is available until Vulcan is certified.  Previous NDAAs limited that number to nine, however.

U.S. space transportation policy requires that two separate launch vehicle families be available to launch national security satellites in case there is an accident that grounds one of them.  SpaceX advocates argue that its Falcon 9 is one and ULA's Delta IV is the other, and both will be available in 2019 and beyond, so Atlas V is not needed to fulfill the policy.  Others worry that if SpaceX's rocket fails, all national security satellites would have to be launched on the very expensive Delta IV.  Air Force Secretary James estimates the potential pricetag as $1.5 - $5 billion.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), is the most prominent voice in holding the line at only nine more engines.  That position has the support of some HASC members, including Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA), who district is near SpaceX's headquarters in Hawthorne, CA.

Air Force and ULA supporters, including HASC's Rep. Mike Coffman (R-CO), insist that 18 more are required. His district is close to ULA's headquarters in Centennial, CO. Coffman's amendment to raise the number from nine to 18 was adopted by HASC by voice vote.

Hunter intended to offer an amendment to keep the number at nine, but said that it had been ruled out of order.  He insisted that there was no need to commit to 18 now and "line Putin's pockets," referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin.  "We can get away with with nine or 10 now," he argued, and return to the issue in future years rather than giving Russia "$540 million in direct payments to Russian military modernization." Coffman insisted that the figure of 18 came from the Air Force so that is the requirement.

A long debate ensued about whether the amendment was for 18 or "up to" 18 engines.  A verbal understanding seemed to be reached that "up to 18" was intended, although the amendment says "a total of eighteen." Thornberry pointed out that this is an authorization bill and how many are purchased ultimately is determined by appropriations.  (In fact, the RD-180 issue splits Senate authorizers and appropriators.)

The origin of the 18 number is complicated.  Until last summer, the Air Force and ULA said 14 more RD-180s were needed based on a "block buy" contract that was awarded by the Air Force to ULA in 2013.  The block buy was for 36 launches, 29 of which were Atlas Vs powered by Russia's RD-180s.  At the time of Russia's incursion into Ukraine in 2014, 15 were purchased, leaving 14, of which 5 were under contract.  That left nine.  Congress agreed ULA could continue to procure those.  Last summer, however, William LaPlante, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Acquisition), wrote a letter to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) asserting that  "up to 18" were needed.  Air Force officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, now use 18, or  "about 18," as the requirement. LaPlante's letter did not explain how the number was derived, saying only it is "a reasonable starting point to mitigate risk associated with assured access to space and to enable competition."  (ULA manufactures its rockets in Shelby's home state of Alabama.  Shelby, a top member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and McCain are battling each other over this issue.)

Another layer of the debate is whether research and development (R&D) funding provided by the government to build a U.S.alternative to the RD-180 can be spent only on a new engine or also on a new launch vehicle to go with it.  HASC has insisted that the money be spent only for a new engine -- that a new launch vehicle is not required.  Others insist that an engine is only part of a launch vehicle and the rest must also be built. 

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA), the top Democrat on the committee (whose district is near Blue Origin's rocket engine manufacturing facility in Kent, WA), offered an amendment that allows not more than 25 percent of the R&D funding to be spent on a new launch vehicle, upper stage, strap-on motor, or related infrastructure.  The amendment allocates $100 million and specifies where the money comes from, which does not appear to be all from R&D accounts.  In response to questions from committee members, Smith explained there is $294 million in the bill for development of the engine and there was money in prior years for the same purpose, but it was only allowed to be used only for the engine.  Not all of the prior year money was spent.  "This amendment does not add any money to anything.  It takes out of that $294 million some money to also help those same companies that are developing the engine develop a launch vehicle to go with it."  The amendment was adopted by voice vote.

The debate was fractious, especially considering the hour (approximately 2:00 am ET) and the length of time the committee had been debating the bill (since 10:00 am ET the previous day).

Vostochny -- Second Time's a Charm, But Putin Critical of Rocket Industry

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 11:55 PM)

The first launch from Russia's new Vostochny (Eastern) launch site was successful today, 24 hours after a first attempt was scrubbed just 90 seconds before launch.  Russian President Vladimir Putin attended the launch, staying an extra day for the second try.   During the wait, he criticized "negligent attitudes" in the Russian rocket industry.

Launch of the Soyuz 2-1a rocket was on time at 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (April 28, 5:01 am Moscow Time) and placed three satellites into their initial orbit nine minutes later.  The three satellites are:

  • Lomonosov, or Mikhailo Lomonosov, named after an 18th Century Russian scientist and writer, (625 kilograms), to study high energy cosmic rays, gamma ray bursts, and Earth's magnetosphere;
  • Aist-2D (500 kilograms), built by the Progress space rocket center for spacecraft operation and attitude control and studying the effects of the space environment on the spacecraft; and
  • SamSat-218 (1.4 kilograms), a nanosatellite built by Samara State Aerospace University students for testing algorithms to control such spacecraft.

Russia is building Vostochny to replace or at least reduce its utilization of the Baikonur Cosmodrome in neighboring Kazakhstan.   Russia has had to lease Baikonur for $115 million per year from the Kazakh government since Kazakhstan gained its independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The construction of Vostochny has been plagued with delays and charges of corruption.  Putin referred to them today during a meeting of the state commission that oversaw the launch.  While insisting that the spaceport was built within standards, there were "certain problems" resulting in six criminal cases and two individuals in jail and another two under house arrest.  "If their guilt is proven, they will have to change their warm beds at home to plank-beds in prison."

He said that Russia is the leader in terms of number of launches, "but it is bad that we're confronted with a larger number of setbacks and the reaction to these setbacks must be timely."  He complained about negligent attitudes in the industry and questioned why there was a technical glitch that recently delayed the launch of Europe's Sentinel satellite on a Soyuz rocket from Kourou.  (The launch was delayed three times, twice for weather and once for technical reasons).

Overall, however, he was pleased that Russia did not abandon the industry as some proposed in the 1990s:  "Thank god we came to our senses, changed our minds in time."

Russia Delays First Vostochny Launch - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 06:45 AM)

An automatic system shut down Russia's first launch from the new Vostochny launch site in Siberia last night 90 seconds before the scheduled liftoff of a Soyuz 2.1a rocket.  Russia's space corporation Roscosmos hopes to try again today -- 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (which is April 28, 5:01 am Moscow Time).

Russia's official news agency, TASS, quoted an unnamed space industry official as saying that the automatic system "identified a glitch in one of the instruments of the control system responsible for starting and stopping the engines, for the separation of rocket stages, and for the direction of flight."

The launch had been scheduled for April 26, 2016 at 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (April 27, 5:01 am Moscow Time).

Roscosmos officials stressed that the problem is with the rocket, not the spaceport's infrastructure. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin was at Vostochny for the launch and will remain there today with the expectation that it is a 24-hour delay only.  He will use the time to discuss plans for the second and third phases of development of the new spaceport and construction of the town of Tsiolkovsky.

Note:  This article was updated throughout at 6:30 am EDT April 27.

 

Russia's New Vostochny Launch Site Ready for Action

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2016 (Updated: 27-Apr-2016 11:18 PM)

Russia plans its first launch from the new Vostochny (Eastern) launch site on Tuesday evening Eastern Daylight Time (Wednesday morning, Moscow Time) according to Russia's Tass news agency.  A Soyuz 2.1a rocket will place three small satellites into orbit if all goes according to plan.

Russia's interest in building a new launch site in Siberia to replace or at least reduce its use of the Baikonur Cosmodrome dates back to the collapse of the Soviet Union when Kazakhstan gained its independence.  Russia now leases Baikonur from the Kazakh government for $115 million per year with resulting financial and national security ramifications.  Russia has another launch site, Plesetsk, near the Arctic Circle, for launches to high inclination orbits, but Baikonur is used for everything else, including the human spaceflight program.  In terms of utilization, Plesetsk is comparable to Vandenberg Air Force Base and Baikonur to Cape Canaveral and NASA's Kennedy Space Center.

Initially, Russia planned to build a new launch site at Svobodny (51.4°N, 128.1°E), a former intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) base.  A few space launches did take place from there between 1997 and 2006 using Start-1 rockets (converted SS-25 mobile missiles), but it was closed in early 2007.  Instead, a decision was made later that year to build a new state-of-the-art launch site at Vostochny (51.8°N, 128.3°E), not far away, that would accommodate launches of Russia's new Angara launch vehicles in addition to existing rockets like Soyuz.  Construction started four years later, but was plagued with delays and charges of corruption.   The two Angara tests that have taken place so far were launched from Plesetsk.  Anatoly Zak's RussianSpaceWeb.com provides a comprehensive history of Vostochny and Svobodny

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, who oversees Russia's aerospace sector, has taken a strong interest in ensuring that Vostochny is completed and regularly tweets (@DRogozin in English; @Rogozin in Russian) about his visits there.  Yesterday he tweeted a photo of the Soyuz rocket on the pad preparing for this week's launch.

Russia's Tass news agency reported on April 19 that although the Soyuz rocket would be ready for launch as early as April 20, Rogozin had said the state commission set April 27 at 5:01 Moscow Time as the launch time.  (Other press reports also cite a potential earlier launch date, but Rogozin presumably is in the best position to know.)  Tass went on to say that Vostochny is "destined to become the first national facility for civilian space launches, ensuring Russia's full-scale access to outer space and reducing the dependence of the Russian space industry on the Baikonur space center in Kazakhstan." 

Tass identifies the three satellites aboard the Soyuz rocket as Aist-2D, Mikhailo Lomonosov, and SamSat-218.  SpaceFlightNow.com describes them as follows:  Aist-2D is a 1,170 pound satellite with a hyperspectral imaging camera, innovative P-band radar, and other instruments to study the environment around the spacecraft; SamSat-218 is a student-built (Samara State Aerospace University) satellite about the size of a shoebox with a mission that is both educational and a technology demonstration; and Mikhailo Lomonosov is a 1,000 pound satellite named after an 18th century Russian scientist and writer and namesake of Lomonosov Moscow State University that will study high energy cosmic rays, gamma ray bursts, and Earth's magnetosphere.

 

What's Happening in Space Policy April 25-29, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-Apr-2016 (Updated: 24-Apr-2016 10:36 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of April 25-29, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

After many years of delays, Russia says that it is finally ready to conduct the first launch from its new Siberian launch site, Vostochny.  The launch is April 27 at 5:01 am Moscow Time, which is April 26 (Tuesday) 10:01 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  (We should note that some press reports cite a potentially earlier launch date, but Russia's official news agency, TASS, reported on April 19 that the launch is set for April 27 at 5:01 Moscow Time, so that is what we use here.)  Russia's Roscosmos space agency/state corporation sometimes webcasts launches.  If we hear of any other live webcasts, we'll add them to our calendar entry.  Anatoly Zak at RussianSpaceWeb.com has comprehensive information about Russia's decision to build a new launch site within Russia's borders to handle many of the launches that now take place at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.  After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kazakhstan became an independent country and Russia must lease the facility from the Kazakh government with financial and national security ramifications.  (Russia also has a launch site near the Arctic Circle at Plesetsk for high inclination launches.)

Here in Washington, Congress will be very busy Wednesday morning marking up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (House Armed Services Committee) and the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (Senate Commerce Committee), as well as holding a hearing on DOD's FY2017 budget request (Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee). 

The Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) and the Space Studies Board (SSB) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine will hold their spring meetings this week.  ASEB meets Monday and Tuesday; SSB Tuesday through Thursday.  The meeting on Tuesday is a joint meeting of both boards.  Unfortunately, we're told there will be no webcast of either Board's meetings, which is a shame because the agendas are chock full of really interesting topics and speakers.  Among them is a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon on the "Future of Low Earth Orbit - Moving Toward a Commercial Market."

Speaking of commercial space, the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) meets this week.  Its various working groups meet on Wednesday and the full committee on Thursday.   The agenda was not posted as of this morning, but COMSTAC meetings are always very interesting.

The President of the French space agency, Jean-Yves Le Gall, will speak to the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) on Friday at the University Club.

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

Monday-Tuesday, April 25-26

Tuesday

Tuesday-Thursday, April 26-28

  • Space Studies Board (National Academy of Sciences), Keck Center, 500 5th Street, NW, Washington, DC (April 26 is joint with the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board)

Wednesday, April 27

Wednesday-Thursday, April 27-28

  •  COMSTAC, NTSB Conference Center, 429 L'Enfant Plaza, SW, Washington DC

Thursday-Friday, April 28-29

Friday, April 29

Bipartisan Senate Bill Clarifies Space Weather Responsibilities, Promotes Research - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Apr-2016 (Updated: 29-Apr-2016 05:35 PM)

Three Senators introduced legislation yesterday to clarify federal agency responsibilities for space weather research and forecasting.  Senators Gary Peters (D-MI), Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) introduced S. 2817, which allocates specific roles to NOAA, DOD, NASA, NSF and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).  NOAA, for example, is directed to "immediately begin planning" to ensure there is no gap in solar observations.  The bill focuses on policy and does not authorize any funding. [UPDATE:  The Senate Commerce committee announced this afternoon that it will mark up the bill on Wednesday, April 27.] [UPDATE 2: The bill was ordered favorably reported from committee.]

Space weather -- the result of particles emitted by the Sun interacting with Earth's atmosphere and potentially damaging satellites and ground-based infrastructure like the electric grid -- is of growing concern.   A 2008 report from the National Research Council raised awareness of the societal and economic impacts of space weather.  NASA has studied solar and space physics, the underlying science behind space weather, for decades as has the European Space Agency (ESA).  Satellites positioned at the Sun-Earth L1 Lagrange point now give warnings of solar eruptions.  NOAA's Space Weather Prediction Center (SWPC) in Boulder, CO issues forecasts and alerts when damaging events are expected.

NASA's veteran Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) and ESA's Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) were joined by the NOAA-NASA-Air Force Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) last year.  ACE was launched in 1997 and SOHO in 1995.  NASA provided three of SOHO's 12 instruments and operates the spacecraft.  SOHO has a type of telescope called a coronagraph that provides the first indication of an eruption on the Sun.  The particles then fly past ACE and DSCOVR, which collect data about intensity and polarization that in turn allow SWPC to make its forecasts.

Last year in its FY2016 budget request, the White House proposed that NASA be responsible for all non-military satellite earth observations, with NOAA responsible only for weather satellites, including space weather.  NOAA requested $2.5 million to begin planning for the next space weather satellite.  Congress agreed with the assignment of responsibilities, but approved only half the funding.  The FY2017 request is also $2.5 million.

In October 2015, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) issued a National Space Weather Strategy and National Space Weather Action Plan.  They set six strategic goals to reduce the nation's vulnerability to space weather.

Some of the OSTP goals, such as establishing benchmarks for space weather events, are contained in the new legislation. the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act.   The bill would clarify the roles and responsibilities of federal agencies for understanding, predicting and forecasting space weather:

  • NOAA and DOD would provide operational space weather forecasts;
  • NASA and NSF would conduct basic heliophysics research, develop next generation technologies, and transfer findings, data and models to operational forecasters;
  • NOAA would immediately begin planning for back-up solar observations to prevent a single point of failure in the current satellite fleet (SOHO's age is of particular concern);
  • the four agencies would begin planning for next-generation observations and science missions;
  • the agencies would develop space weather benchmarks to characterize the nature, frequency, and intensity of expected space weather events; and
  • the Department of Homeland Security would assess the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to space weather events.

The bill has other provisions to foster greater interagency cooperation, multidisciplinary research, and partnerships with international, commercial and academic organizations.   It also directs NASA to "seek to implement" missions identified in the most recent NRC Decadal Survey for Solar and Space Physics.

Dan Baker, Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado-Boulder, chaired that Decadal Survey and praised the legislation in a press release issued by the Senators:  "I believe this legislation will be instrumental in helping the nation achieve the kind of operational space weather system that we've long needed."   The CEO and Executive Director of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), Christine McEntee, also supports the bill, saying AGU applauds "the bill's intent to further scientifically informed action towards disaster preparation, mitigation, response, and recovery."

The bill was referred to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which announced on April 21 that it will mark up the bill on April 27 at 10:00 am ET (along with several other bills and pending nominations).   All three sponsors of the legislation are members of the committee and of its Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee.  Peters is the ranking member (top Democrat) on that subcommittee.

Update:  This article was updated at 2:20 pm ET on April 21 to reflect the Senate Commerce Committee's announcement that it will mark up the bill next week.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 18-22, 2016

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Apr-2016 (Updated: 17-Apr-2016 01:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of April 18-22, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

As expected, Congress did not meet the April 15 deadline to pass a FY2017 budget and there is no indication that it will succeed in doing so any time soon.  Nonetheless, the appropriations process must proceed.  This week, the Senate Appropriations Committee will markup the bills that fund the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (Transportation-HUD) and NASA and NOAA (Commerce-Justice-Science).  Subcommittee markups are on Tuesday; full committee on Thursday.  That's just a first step -- there's a long way to go -- but will give an indication of how the Senate, at least, is looking at funding those programs.

One of NASA's most stalwart supporters in the Senate, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), is retiring this year.  Tomorrow (Monday) she will give her annual speech to the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, which may offer a preview of what to expect at the CJS markup.  Mikulski is a very powerful advocate for NASA because of her seniority on the appropriations committee (she chaired the full committee and the CJS subcommittee when Democrats controlled the Senate and is the top Democrat on both panels now).  It will be interesting to see if any senior Democratic appropriator steps up to the plate for NASA next year.  CJS also appropriates money to NOAA and Mikulski supports NOAA, too,  but she is more publicly critical of NOAA's management of the weather satellite programs.

The House Armed Services Committee will begin marking up the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) this week.  (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  Or, for that matter, what a markup is?  Read our "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)   Subcommittee markups are on Wednesday and Thursday.  The Strategic Forces subcommittee oversees most defense space issues.  Its markup is on Thursday at noon.  Full committee markup is next week.

On Tuesday, the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold a hearing on small satellites and the commercial space launch industry.  Witnesses are Elliott Pulham of the Space Foundation, Eric Stallmer of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and Jason Andrews from Spaceflight Industries, a Seattle-based company that matches customers who need to put small payloads into orbit with launch service providers and offers associated services (like payload integration).

NASA is having one of its "Destination Station" events here in Washington on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, but we haven't heard much about it other than a media advisory from Johnson Space Center.  It reveals that the non-profit organization that manages research aboard the U.S. segment of the International Space Station (ISS), the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), is having an "industry day" on Thursday.  Oddly, we could find no mention of it on the CASIS website so we don't have any details other than what is in the media advisory.  The most recent "event" on the CASIS website was for something that took place in February.  Perhaps CASIS will update its website soon. NASA's Destination Station website could use an update as well.  We confess that we were not aware that NASA had a Destination Station series of events until now.  Apparently they have been held in various places across the country since 2011.  NASA has a dedicated website for it that features a list of "where we've been, where we're going," but it ends in July 2015.  According to the website, Destination Station is an ISS "national awareness campaign."  It would be hard to find anyone who disagrees that more effort is needed to make the nation aware of ISS.  The Internet is a great way to do that, but out-of-date content doesn't help the cause.

Friday is Earth Day 2016.  Go out and do something nice for our planet!

Monday, April 18

Tuesday April 19

Wednesday-Thursday, April 20-21

Thursday, April 21

Friday, April 22