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NASA Continues Journey to Mars Planning

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-Mar-2017 (Updated: 29-Mar-2017 12:15 AM)

The Trump Administration has said very little about its plans for NASA's human spaceflight program other than terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), but NASA continues to shape its architecture for sending people to Mars in the 2030s.  The status of that planning was presented to a NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committee today.

Bill Gerstenmaier and Jim Free of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (HEOMD) spoke to NAC's Human Exploration and Operations committee this morning.  Two of Gerstenmaier's slides summarized current plans for launches of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and associated systems -- including a lunar "gateway" -- from 2018 to 2030 and beyond.  All would culminate in a human mission to orbit Mars in 2033.


Screengrab from NASA presentation to NASA Advisory Council HEO Committee March 28, 2017. 


Screengrab from NASA presentation to NASA Advisory Council HEO Committee March 28, 2017. 

One interesting feature is that the first two Exploration Mission launches, EM-1 and EM-2, are separated on the slide by the launch of the Europa Clipper mission. That is notionally expected in 2022.  The schedule fits with NASA's official plan to launch EM-1 in 2018 and its commitment date to launch EM-2 in 2023, but the agency is working toward an internal deadline of 2021 for the EM-2 launch and Congress is providing additional funding to achieve it.  The slide suggests that NASA does not want to go too far in promising the earlier launch date.   The slide also shows EM-1 as a 25-60 day mission to a Distant Lunar Retrograde Orbit, not a crewed mission, which NASA is currently studying.

Another feature is the lunar "gateway" NASA recently has begun discussing.  Free emphasized today that the gateway would not be another International Space Station (ISS) in lunar orbit.  It would be smaller and human-tended, not permanently inhabited -- a location from which to stage missions to Mars and possibly to the lunar surface.

"Robust international partnerships" and "commercial capabilities" are essential ingredients of the plan, he added.

The humans-to-Mars mission in 2033 could involve a Venus flyby, they said.  It would be an "out and back" mission, but the crew would remain in Mars orbit for a period of time. That differentiates it from the Inspiration Mars mission proposed by Dennis Tito several years ago.  In that scenario, two people would have made a slingshot flyby of Mars, not enter orbit.  Tito's original idea was for a privately funded mission that would launch in 2018, but within a year Tito decided that it would need to be a public-private partnership with NASA shouldering 70 percent of the cost.  The conceptual launch date slipped to 2021 when Mars and the Earth were not as well aligned and the spacecraft would have needed a gravity assist from Venus.  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) was a strong supporter of the idea.  Little has been heard about it recently, but this NASA concept is sure to prompt comparisons.

NASA describes the path to Mars in terms of phases and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) at one time was to signal the end of Phase 1 when experience was gained in cis-lunar space (the Earth-Moon region).  President Trump has proposed terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), however, and NASA is reconfiguring its plans accordingly.   ARM comprises ARCM and the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).  ARRM was to launch first and robotically relocate a boulder from the surface of an asteroid into lunar orbit where ARCM astronauts would visit it to obtain a sample for return to Earth.  The mission had few supporters in Congress and the proposal to terminate it is not likely to generate much opposition.

However, ARM involved the development of high power solar electric propulsion (SEP) and that part of the program is expected to continue.  The "40 kw Power/Prop bus" shown on the slides reflects that effort.  High power SEP is useful for many types of missions in Earth orbit and deep space. Michele Gates, ARM program director, is on the NAC/HEO committee's schedule tomorrow (Wednesday) to give a briefing on in-space power and propulsion.

Concern has been expressed over the low launch rate for SLS for fear that launch teams will lose their proficiency.  A launch rate of, at most, one per year has been projected.  Today, however, Free said that the latest plan is for one crewed SLS/Orion launch per year beginning in 2023 plus one cargo SLS launch per year beginning in 2027, which would increase the cadence to two per year in support of the human spaceflight program. Some SLS supporters believe that additional uses of SLS will materialize, such as for science missions, that could further increase the launch rate, although the cost per launch is not yet known.

The key to all of this is how much support the Trump Administration will provide for such activities.  The President's budget blueprint is for a status quo NASA human spaceflight program.  Funding for SLS/Orion would remain essentially at its current level.  During a signing ceremony last week for the NASA Transition Authorization Act, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, told the President that just as President Eisenhower is remembered for creating the interstate highway system, he (Trump) would be remembered for creating an interplanetary highway system.  Trump's response was "Well that sounds exciting. First we want to fix our highways.  We have to fix our highways."

What's Happening in Space Policy March 27-31, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Mar-2017 (Updated: 26-Mar-2017 12:57 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 27-31, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

Before we get started on what's coming up, in case you missed it, yesterday President Trump used his Weekly Address to talk about NASA.  He signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act into law earlier in the week and the roughly 5 minute video continues the theme of expressing his admiration for NASA while sharing no information on his plans for the agency.  Apollo, Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are featured. JWST is, in fact, the only future program mentioned even though the President says "the future belongs to us."  He is speaking generically at that point, though, not about the space program specifically.  Nothing about the International Station Station even though there's footage from the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.  A space shuttle launch is shown, but nothing about SLS or any other launch vehicles.  The only science other than astrophysics that makes it into the video requires the viewer to be sufficiently in-the-know to recognize the JPL jubilation at Curiosity's successful landing on Mars.  Still, Presidents don't often talk about the space program in their Weekly Addresses or anywhere else, so it's worth a look. This was done the day after the Republican Obamacare repeal effort failed, so perhaps he was looking for some good news to convey.  He says at the end that "if Americans can achieve these things, there is no problem we cannot solve."

Onward.  This coming week is another space policy extravaganza.   Starting with national security space, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will hold a hearing on the nomination of former Rep. Heather Wilson to be Secretary of the Air Force.  Trump announced her nomination back in January, but it has taken this long for all the paperwork to get to the committee. None of the service secretaries are in place right now.  The nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy withdrew because they could not disentangle themselves from their business interests.  Wilson's hearing is Thursday morning.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, a HASC subcommittee will hold a joint hearing with a House Homeland Security subcommittee on "Threats to Space Assets and Implications for Homeland Security," certainly an interesting topic.  Witnesses are the former commandant of the Coast Guard (Adm. Thad Allen), the former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Joseph Nimmich), and the former commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command (Gen. William Shelton).  That's on Wednesday afternoon.  Allen is on the GPS Advisory Board, so that surely will be one of the topics.  GPS -- where would we all be without it?

On the civil space side, this is Space Science Week at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  All five of the standing committees that deal with space meet individually and jointly Tuesday-Thursday and there is a public lecture on Wednesday evening.   At the public lecture, JPL's Kevin Hand will talk about the Search for Life in Oceans Beyond Earth.  The lecture and the other Space Science Week events will take place at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue (not at the Keck Center on 5th Street).

Space law is on the docket this week, too. The Legal Subcommittee of the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space begins its annual two-week meeting in Vienna, Austria.  The first day features a space law symposium sponsored by the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) and the European Centre for Space Law (ECSL).  Closer to home, Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) is holding an afternoon symposium on Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.   Henry Hetrzfeld (GWU), Steve Mirmina (NASA), Pamela Meredith (American Univ.), Ray Bender (independent arbitrator and mediator), Courtney Bailey (NASA) and Pete Hays (DOD PDSA staff) are the speakers.  SAIS doesn't often weigh in on space law or space policy issues.  Space law does seem to be in vogue these days, spurred by the anniversary and the innovative ideas commercial companies are espousing for space exploration and utilization and associated legal issues.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meets, more briefly than usual, on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.  Two of its committees meet earlier in the week, including Human Exploration and Operations (HEO).  NAC advises the NASA Administrator and a new Administrator has not yet been nominated.  Robert Lightfoot is Acting Administrator.  Gen. Lester Lyles (USAF, Ret.) is the new Chair of NAC, succeeding Ken Bowersox, who served as Acting Chair after Steve Squyres stepped down last April.  Bowersox remains on NAC and resumes his position as chair of the HEO committee.  Lyles was an ex officio member of NAC for many years because he chaired the National Academies Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB).  He completed his two terms as ASEB chair last year and now will continue advising NASA in this new capacity.  Public sessions of the NAC meetings are useful for catching up on NASA programs and the issues NASA managers are facing.  Anyone can listen in by telecon and watch via WebEx.  

We'll stop there because this is getting so long, but there are MANY other really interesting meetings on tap this week.

All the events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.  In particular we are awaiting word on when the OA-7 cargo mission to the International Space Station will launch.  The launch, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, has been delayed three times due to technical problems with one thing or another.  When a new launch date is announced, we'll post it.

Monday, March 27

Monday, March 27 - Friday, April 7

Tuesday, March 28

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 28-29

Tuesday-Thursday, March 28-30

Wednesday, March 29

Wednesday-Friday, March 29-31

Thursday, March 30

Thursday-Friday, March 30-31

What's Happening in Space Policy March 19-24, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Mar-2017 (Updated: 19-Mar-2017 03:41 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 19-24, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's another one of those super-busy weeks, especially Wednesday.  Lots of action is in store inside Washington, outside Washington, and in Earth orbit.

Two are happening today (Sunday).  First is a Town Hall meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LSPC) near Houston that is discussing the Science Definition Team report on a Europa lander, a topic expected to be of congressional interest during debate on the FY2018 budget request. President Trump's budget blueprint specifically says it does NOT fund the lander, only the orbiter/flyby Europa Clipper. Second is the return to Earth of SpaceX's CRS-10 Dragon spacecraft.  It took about 5,500 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) last month and is returning 5,400 pounds of results from scientific experiments and other items needed back on Earth.  Dragon is the only one of the four cargo spacecraft that service ISS that was designed to survive reentry (since SpaceX designed it from the beginning to support crews).

Dragon's return is just one part of a busy time on the ISS.  Another cargo mission, Orbital ATK's OA-7, is scheduled for launch on either Thursday or Friday (the exact date is TBD depending on availability of the Eastern Test Range from which the launch will take place aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V).  At the same time, astronauts on the U.S. segment of the ISS are gearing up for a series of three spacewalks.  The first is on Friday.  NASA will hold a news conference on Wednesday at Johnson Space Center to explain what they will be doing.  NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet will all take part in the spacewalks.  The other two are on April 2 and April 7.

The Europa lander Town Hall mentioned above is just the start of the week-long LPSC conference at The Woodlands, just outside Houston.  LPSC is the premier conference where planetary scientists gather to present the results of their research and talk about upcoming missions.  Unfortunately, it looks like there are no webcasts, so one must be there in person to hear about all the new findings and discoveries.  [There is a notice on the conference's website warning that no live streaming of presentations is permitted.]  NASA headquarters representatives will hold their own Town Hall meeting on Monday and NASA's Venus Exploration Analysis Group's (VEXAG's) Town Hall is on Thursday.

Back in Washington, brevity requires picking just two events to highlight, both among those taking place on Wednesday.  First, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI) will hold a day-long symposium on "Space Security:  Issues for the New Administration."  It has a terrific lineup of speakers from CSIS, PSSI, the U.S. military, Congress, academia (U.S. and Japan), the Japanese and French governments, the European Space Agency, industry, non-profits and FFRDCs. The four main topics are space crisis dynamics, cooperation in space and missile defense, future of space launch, and space situational awareness and space traffic management.   Luckily, this event WILL be livestreamed so people everywhere can benefit. 

Second, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis gets his first chance in his new position to publicly brief the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on the state of U.S. military readiness and DOD's budget requirements.   Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC) will also testify.  Not sure how much, if any, of the discussion will be about space activities, but it's a great way to get the lay of the land from their perspectives. The committee typically webcasts its hearings on its website.

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

Sunday, March 19

Monday, March 20

Monday-Friday, March 20-24

Tuesday, March 21

Wednesday, March 22

Thursday, March 23

  • VEXAG Town Hall meeting at LPSC, The Woodlands, TX, "lunchtime"
  • Two OA-7 Pre-Launch Briefings, Kennedy Space Center, FL, 1:00 pm ET (What's on Board) and 4:00 pm ET (Mission Status), broadcast on NASA TV (could take place a day earlier if the launch date moves up a day)
  • [The OA-7 launch could take place today, but is currently scheduled for tomorrow]

Friday, March 24

  • ISS Spacewalk (1st of 3, Kimbrough and Pesquet), Earth orbit, 7:00 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins 6:30 am ET)
  • Launch of Orbital ATK OA-7 Cargo Mission to ISS, Cape Canaveral, FL, 9:00 pm ET (launch could move forward one day to March 23)  NASA TV launch coverage begins 8:00 pm ET, post-launch coverage begins at 10:30 pm ET

Should Commercial Space Activities be Permissionless?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Mar-2017 (Updated: 14-Mar-2017 02:20 AM)

Witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing last week debated how – and whether – the U.S. government should regulate commercial space activities to ensure compliance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty while not stifling innovation.  No consensus emerged other than if there is governmental regulation, it should have a light touch.

Today, the only commercial space activities that are regulated are launch and reentry (FAA), use of the electromagnetic spectrum (FCC), and remote sensing satellites (NOAA).  With the emergence of ideas for private sector activities ranging from satellite servicing to mining asteroids, the issue of the government’s role in overseeing what companies do in space has taken on new urgency.

Section 108 of the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) required a report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on possible approaches to dealing with the issue while ensuring U.S. compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty.  Article VI requires governments to authorize and continually supervise activities of their non-government entities, like companies.

In an April 2016 report, OSTP recommended that the Department of Transportation be assigned responsibility for granting “mission authorizations” for commercial space activities not already under the jurisdiction of another agency.  DOT is the parent of FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), which currently regulates commercial launch and reentry.

Through much of last year, a consensus appeared to be developing among the commercial space sector – through FAA/AST’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) – and the government (FAA, the State Department, and the Obama White House) that issuing such mission authorizations would be the solution.  FAA/AST would review a proposed activity, authorize it (or not) after consulting with other agencies as appropriate, and conduct periodic evaluations to demonstrate continuing supervision.

In October, however, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chair of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee laid out an alternative viewpoint that essentially said the private sector should be able to do whatever it wants unless the government can demonstrate the need to restrict it.  The burden would be on the government, not the private sector.

Babin said he would hold a hearing on these issues and did so on March 8.

The five witnesses were Laura Montgomery, a former FAA attorney (and head of its Space Law Branch) now in private practice; Eli Dourado, Director of the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center; Doug Loverro, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy; Dennis Burnett, University of Nebraska-Lincoln adjunct professor of law; and Henry Hogue, Specialist in American National Government, Congressional Research Service.

The discussion focused less on long-term potential commercial space activities like asteroid mining and more on near-term issues in Earth orbit, especially concern about collisions creating space debris.  The fundamental debate, however, was over what the U.S. government must do to comply with Article VI of the OST.

Montgomery’s position is that because the OST is not self-executing, Article VI only comes into play if Congress passes legislation to implement it. Otherwise, non-governmental entities may do whatever they wish without regulation. Although Article VI states that governments must authorize and continually supervise non-government entities, it does not say how to do that or what activities are covered, she said.  It is up to each Treaty signatory to make those decisions.

She believes there is a widespread “misunderstanding” that the Treaty forbids private sector activities that are not authorized by a government.  Instead, she says, the Treaty does not prohibit private sector operators from conducting activities in space, does not say either that all activities or any particular activity must be authorized, and because the Treaty is not self-executing, does not create any obligation on the private sector unless and until Congress says it does. She did not argue against all regulations, only that they should not be established for the wrong reason – a misunderstanding of the Treaty.  Her solution is for Congress to prohibit any regulatory agency from denying a U.S. entity the ability to operate in outer space “solely on the basis of Article VI.”

Dourado’s expertise is in technology policy and telecommunications.  He likened new space activities to the development of the Internet, which benefited from “permissionless” innovation as described in a book by his colleague Adam Thierer.   The Internet evolved in a regime where there was "little prior restraint" on what business activities could be conducted and if "harms or failures occurred" they were addressed "in an ex post manner."  While acknowledging that the “freedom to experiment will result in some mistakes and failures,” in the long run “faster progress and more robust solutions” will result.   He advocated the same approach for space activities, with a “blanket authorization for all non-governmental operations in space that do not cause tangible harm to other parties.”

Tangible harm from space debris was Loverro’s focus.  He argued that some regulation is necessary if not because of the Treaty, but “for the good of America and for the good of American business and for the good of American national security.”  Citing the potential damage that could be caused by a cubesat colliding with a U.S. national security satellite or a foreign satellite, he insisted that a “laissez-faire approach to spaceflight safety has serious and non-quantifiable impacts that extend” beyond the investor, scientist or high school student that owns the cubesat.

The United States should take the lead internationally in setting the rules for conducting new commercial space activities as it did with orbital debris guidelines that were adopted by the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), Loverro said.   “NASA developed a set of standards, guidelines on orbital debris, that we then took to COPUOS and convinced the rest of the world [to] follow.  That’s good for the U.S. and we should do it again here.” He expanded on that later in the hearing: “[T]he last thing I would like to see happen is for other nations to develop rules that we then become forced to follow. That is not good for our industry.  We need to lead. We need to develop rules that are right for the U.S., and then we need to convince the rest of the world that those rules are the ones they should follow.”

Burnett disagreed with Montgomery’s interpretation of Article IV.  He concluded that the Treaty “requires a minimum of some type of authorization and supervision.” He stressed that “minimum” is the key and cited the commercial remote sensing satellite regulatory process as a “cautionary lesson” to be avoided.

One of the criticisms of OSTP’s proposed mission authorization approach is that it requires use of an interagency process before approval can be granted, just as NOAA must do when considering applications for commercial remote sensing satellites.   NOAA’s process is strongly criticized because of its lack of transparency and time limits.  Although by law NOAA must make a decision on an application within 120 days, there are no time limits for the interagency process, tying NOAA's hands.  Restrictions on commercial remote sensing satellites are largely related to national security and the national security sector can simply decline indefinitely to act without explanation.

As Burnett said, “some of the decision criteria … are black boxes… The applicant must prove a negative, which is a logical impossibility.”   He recommended that Congress pass legislation establishing a clear list of objective decision criteria and a process through which the private sector can get “authorization at the speed of business.”

Other regulatory models exist.  Hogue described four alternatives to traditional government regulation: government corporations, nongovernmental standard setting, federally chartered organizations, and self-regulatory organizations.

One driver in the debate is that some of the private companies insist that potential investors want regulatory certainty before committing funds. Babin noted that “wanting certainty and wanting regulation are two different things” and asked Montgomery how those concerns could be ameliorated.  She said the uncertainty stems from the misunderstanding that Article VI prohibits private sector space activities and cited space tourism as an example of a commercial space activity currently taking place without regulation.

Several companies are planning to launch tourists – or spaceflight participants – on suborbital or orbital missions, but none have done so yet.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) pointed out that the only paying customers who have flown into space have done so on Russian government Soyuz rockets and spacecraft, “which puts it at a different level.” Montgomery agreed with his characterization of different levels of commercial space activities and there could be cases where “something is important or scary enough to be regulated.”  She also agreed that regulation could be needed if there are safety concerns, but not because of Article VI.

Bridenstine, who has been a leader in Congress on these issues for the past two years, made a case in favor of an interagency review process for some activities such as satellite servicing, which has national security implications since some countries might view it as potentially interfering with their assets.  He also argued in favor of Congress passing a law to create a permanent regulatory regime, whatever the specifics, so that it is not subject to change when new presidents take office.

Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said that the goal should be to provide guidance.  Regulations “are not inherently good or inherently bad,” but provide guidance and clarity so companies understand the rules of the road.

Bera also said “we don’t want to stifle … creativity and innovation” and that is one of the few points on which everyone seemed to agree.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 13-17, 2017 - UPDATE

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

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 13-17, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session (the Senate for only the first half of the week).

During the Week

After last week's meeting extravaganza (stay tuned for more SpacePolicyOnline.com stories), this week is a welcome respite.  As of this morning (Sunday), at least, we are not aware of any space-related congressional hearings or major space conferences in the United States. [UPDATE: We forgot to mention that the White House is expected to release its FY2018 Budget Blueprint on Thursday.  We do not have a time or place for that, though.  We'll add it to our "Events of Interest" list when we do.]

There are two especially interesting seminars, though, both in Washington, DC.  First, a word of warning to anyone in DC or planning to come here.  Mother Nature decided to save the winter weather till now and there is a storm that could bring a significant snowfall Monday night into Tuesday.  The forecasters are hedging their bets -- this area is notoriously tough to forecast because the rain/snow line often goes right through here so it's hard to know which we'll get until the last minute -- but even a small amount of snow (or worse, ice) could snarl things.  If you plan on attending any events in DC early this week, check first to make certain they are taking place.

That said, on Tuesday, the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) and the University of Arizona are holding an afternoon discussion on "Congested, Contested, and Competitive: The Future of Security and Commerce in Space."  Among the speakers are Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), DOD space policy advisor Josef Koller, FAA/AST Associate Administrator George Nield, and Lockheed Martin's Robie Samanta Roy. That's at the Army & Navy Club on 17th Street, NW (not to be confused with the Army Navy Country Club across the river in Arlington, VA where NDIA is holding a breakfast meeting featuring Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Thursday). 

On Wednesday, the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) is holding a lunchtime meeting on Capitol Hill (2325 Rayburn) on "Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Reform: How Changes Can Enable Growth in the U.S. Commercial Satellite Industry."  Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) and Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), the chairman and top Democrat, respectively, on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, will speak along with representatives of Planet and DigitalGlobe.  Be sure to RSVP in advance (light refreshments will be served). 

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

Monday, March 13

Monday-Tuesday, March 13-14

Tuesday, March 14

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 14-15

Wednesday, March 15

Thursday, March 16

What's Happening in Space Policy March 6-10, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Mar-2017 (Updated: 05-Mar-2017 04:35 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 6-10, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

Hang onto your hats!  It's going to be quite a week.  From two overlapping conferences (Satellite 2017 and the AAS Goddard Memorial Symposium) in Washington to the first meeting of a new National Academies committee on planetary protection policy to scheduled House floor action on two important pieces of legislation to the annual "Space Prom" and many other events in between, we'll barely have time to catch our breaths.

Starting on Capitol Hill, the House has scheduled floor action -- again -- on the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 (S. 442).  At this point last Sunday, it was included on the House Majority Leader's list of legislation to be considered under suspension of the rules the next day.  Later, however, it was pulled from the list. There are varying viewpoints on why.  It is back on the list now for a vote on Tuesday.  We're not going to say it "will" come up for a vote, only that it is on the schedule at the moment.

The FY2017 defense appropriations bill is also on the floor schedule for debate to begin on Wednesday "subject to a rule being granted."  That one will be debated under regular order, which requires a rule delineating what amendments are in order and how much time is allocated for debate, for example.  The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday at 5:00 pm ET to write that rule.  Defense appropriations is one of the 12 regular appropriations bills Congress is supposed to pass each year.  None of the 12 cleared Congress last year.  Government agencies are operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) basically at their FY2016 levels until April 28.  Congress must pass new legislation before then to keep them operating.  The defense bill is the first one out of the gate. The House passed a different FY2017 defense appropriations bill last year.  This new one (H.R. 1301) reflects agreement with the Senate and the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which did become law.  One space program singled out in the House Appropriations Committee's summary of the bill is that it includes funding for GPS III operational control and space segments.

Also on the Hill and also on Wednesday, the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Space Subcommittee has a hearing scheduled on "Regulating Space: Innovation, Liberty, and International Obligations."   Regulatory matters may not be everyone's cup of tea, but this hearing has a REALLY interesting set of witnesses who will lend their expertise to issues that could have a profound effect on how the private sector engages in new non-traditional activities in Earth orbit and beyond.  It's at 10:00 am ET.  The committee webcasts its hearings. 

Fortunately the committee archives the webcasts for people who can't be in multiple places at once, which is how Wednesday is shaping up.  The Satellite 2017 conference will be in full swing (it begins Monday) at the Washington Convention Center and the American Astronautical Society's Goddard Memorial Symposium will be starting at the Greenbelt Marriott in Greenbelt, MD, just outside the Beltway. 

Your SpacePolicyOnline.com editor will be at the AAS Goddard Symposium on Wednesday moderating a panel discussion in the afternoon on "The Political Environment" with a terrific panel:  Frank Morring of Aviation Week; Chris Shank, now at DOD, but who headed the NASA transition team for the Trump Administration; Tom Hammond from the House SS&T Space Subcommittee; and Nick Cummings from the Senate Commerce Committee.   Others who will be speaking at the two-day conference include NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, AURA President Matt Mountain, and, at various points in the program, the NASA Associate Administrators heading the three mission directorates most involved in space (Bill Gerstenmaier, Thomas Zurbuchen, and Steve Jurczyk) and Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen.  AAS hasn't posted a link for a webcast of the conference, though it has livestreamed the annual conference in the past.  If we learn of one, we'll add it to the entry on our Events of Interest calendar.

Also on Wednesday a new National Academies study committee on Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes will continue its meeting, which begins Tuesday.  Some sessions are closed, but those that are open will be available by WebEx and telecon. The committee is assessing how planetary protection policy is developed domestically and internationally and whether it is responsive to, among other things, "the exploration interests of state and non-state actors."  Non-state actors include private companies, like SpaceX with its Red Dragon plans to land spacecraft on Mars.

And still on Wednesday, a symposium on "Will Collaboration or Competition Get Humans to Mars and Beyond" with a fascinating set of speakers -- established voices and completely new ones -- hosted by a group called Future Tense, which itself is a collaboration of Slate, New America and Arizona State University.  A little later, Defense One and Next Gov will hold a "cocktails and conversation" event on "Space and Satellites in the New Administration."  Both sound really interesting.  Their websites don't indicate if they will be webcast, but, if they are, hopefully they'll be archived so those of us who don't have clones can catch up later.

There are many other events (see the list below) that we can't highlight here or this would go on and on and on.  The week at last comes to a close with the National Space Club's annual Goddard Memorial Dinner -- or the Space Prom as it is affectionately known -- as usual at the Hilton Washington. There'll be a lot to talk about.

As a heads up, though we'll need a lot of rest after a week like that, unfortunately the United States returns to Daylight Saving Time next Sunday (March 12) so we'll lose an hour of sleep.

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

Monday-Tuesday, March 6-7

Monday-Wednesday, March 6-8

Monday-Thursday, March 6-9

  • Satellite 2017, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 7

Tuesday-Thursday, March 7-9

Wednesday, March 8

Thursday, March 9

Friday, March 10

NASA Buys Soyuz Seats from Boeing with Options Through 2019 if Commercial Crew Is Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 11:19 PM)

NASA has purchased two seats with an option for three more on Russian Soyuz spacecraft through Boeing to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  One seat each in 2017 and 2018 will allow a fourth U.S.-sponsored astronaut to fly to the ISS while Russia reduces its own crew complement.  The three options are for 2019 in case the new U.S. commercial crew systems, one of which is being built by Boeing, are not ready by then.  The options must be exercised by the fall of this year.

Boeing gained the ability to make seats on Soyuz available to NASA as part of an agreement with the Russian company Energia to settle outstanding financial issues related to the Sea Launch program.  Sea Launch was a U.S. (Boeing)-Russian (Energia)-Ukrainian (Yuzhonye) -Norwegian (Kvaerner) company that launched rockets from a converted mobile oil platform at sea. The platform was based in Long Beach, CA and towed to a location close to the equator to launch satellites in geostationary orbit (which is located above the equator).  Boeing was the major shareholder initially, but launch failures led to the company declaring bankruptcy in 2009 and Russia's Energia took majority ownership in 2010.  Sea Launch utilized Ukraine's Zenit booster and the disrupted Russian-Ukrainian relationship following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 added to the company's woes.  A Russian venture, S7 Group, is buying Sea Launch, but Boeing and Energia needed to reach a financial settlement first.  Energia builds the Soyuz spacecraft and the five seats were made available to Boeing as part of the settlement. 

In a FedBizOpps solicitation on January 17, 2017, NASA announced its intent to buy the seats via a modification of its existing Vehicle Sustaining Engineering Contract with Boeing.

NASA has not been able to launch astronauts into space since the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011.  Under the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs the ISS partnership, the United States is responsible for transporting astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to and from ISS.  The IGA was signed at a time when NASA anticipated that the space shuttle would be available throughout the ISS's operational lifetime.

Without the shuttle, NASA must rely on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport as well as on-orbit lifeboat services so the crew can escape in an emergency.  The size of the resident ISS crew is limited in large part by the number that can be evacuated in an emergency.  Two Soyuzes are usually docked and each can accommodate three people, hence the current six-person limit.

NASA is prohibited from paying Russia for anything associated with the ISS program under the terms of the Iran-North Korean-Syria Non-proliferation Act (INKSNA), however, so must obtain a waiver to the law from Congress whenever it needs to contract with Russia for ISS-related services.  INKSNA applies whether the arrangement is through NASA itself or a U.S. company on behalf of NASA.

A waiver enacted in 2013 allows NASA to purchase ISS-related services from Russia through December 31, 2020 (P.L. 112-273, the Space Exploration Sustainability Act).   In 2015, NASA signed its most recent contract with Russia for six seats and associated training and other support services.  They will accommodate U.S. and partner astronauts traveling to the ISS through the end of 2018 with a final return in the spring of 2019. 

By 2019, NASA hoped that the new commercial crew systems being developed by SpaceX (Crew Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100 Starliner) would be operational.  As noted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this month, however, it is not certain that those companies will be ready by then.  GAO's report was released on February 16 and called on NASA to provide a contingency plan in case the commercial crew systems are not ready as planned.  NASA agreed to provide such a plan by March 13. 

Five days later, on February 21, NASA posted an article on an ISS research website announcing its purchase of the seats through Boeing.  The agency did not issue a press release. The article explained the advantages of having four U.S.-sponsored crew members aboard ISS in 2017 and 2018 and the flexibility if the commercial crew systems are delayed.

Usually there are three Russians and three U.S.-sponsored crew aboard ISS. The U.S.-sponsored crew members typically include two Americans and one representative from  Europe, Canada or Japan.  Budget constraints in Russia led its space agency, Roscosmos, to temporarily cut back the Russian crew complement from three to two in order to reduce resupply requirements.  Since six people are usually aboard, if only two are Russian, four U.S.-sponsored crew members can be accommodated.

NASA is anxious to increase the number of crew available to conduct scientific research on ISS.  With three U.S.-sponsored crew members available, it strives to spend a total of 35 hours per week on research.  Four will increase how much research can be conducted.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said via email that NASA paid $491 million to Russia for the six Soyuz seats it acquired in 2015, which includes training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue as well as limited crew cargo delivery to and from the ISS.  That is approximately $81.8 million per seat including the additional services.

Purchasing the Boeing seats increased the Vehicle Sustaining Engineering contract value by $373.5 million, Schierholz said.  That yields a price per seat of $74.7 million.

What's Happening in Space Policy February 27-March 3, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 09:03 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 27-March 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The week starts off tomorrow (Monday) with two important votes, one in the House and one in the Senate.

The House will vote on the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act.  The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate on February 17.   It is being brought up on the suspension calendar, which is used for non-controversial legislation, making its passage all but assured.  It then would go the President for signature.  President Trump's position on NASA is unclear.  Perhaps this legislation will give the White House an opportunity to signal its intentions.  Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually appropriate any funding.  The key will be if the Trump White House agrees with the overall goals as set out in the bill.  The House meets for legislative business at 2:00 pm ET, with votes postponed until 6:00 pm ET.  [UPDATE, February 27:  The bill apparently has been pulled from consideration today.]

Also on Monday, the Senate will vote on the confirmation of Wilbur Ross to be the new Secretary of Commerce and therefore in charge of NOAA.  As part of his confirmation process, he vowed that "science should be left to the scientists" and NOAA should continue to conduct climate change research and monitoring.  His nomination has been less controversial than other Trump nominees.  The vote is scheduled for 7:00 pm ET.

Trump will have an opportunity to say something about the space program when he speaks at to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night at 9:00 pm ET.  We haven't heard any rumors that any aspect of space activities will be mentioned, but one never knows.  He did have a sentence in his inaugural address that said "We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space, to free the Earth from the miseries of disease, and to harness the energies, industries and technologies of tomorrow."  But there has been nothing else from the Trump White House itself about the space program.

NASA is holding the "Planetary Science Vision 2050" Workshop Monday-Wednesday at NASA Headquarters. The purpose is to look at a longer term future than what is considered by the 10-year Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.  The workshop will identify science goals and enabling technologies that can be implemented by the end of the 2040s to support the next phase of solar system exploration.  So many people responded that NASA is limiting in-person participation to invited panelists and oral/poster presenters.  Everyone else can participate virtually.

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

Monday, February 27

Monday-Wednesday, February 27-March 1

Tuesday, February 28

 

SpaceX's Dragon Arrives at ISS on Second Try, Russia's Progress Due Tomorrow

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Feb-2017 (Updated: 23-Feb-2017 06:44 AM)

SpaceX's CRS-10 Dragon spacecraft successfully arrived at the International Space Station (ISS) this morning, a day late, but with none of the problems that arose in its first attempt yesterday.  Meanwhile, Russia's Progress MS-05 spacecraft is continuing on its journey to the ISS and will dock tomorrow morning.  Together, they are bringing 5.4 metric tons (MT) of supplies to the six person crew.

Dragon's first attempt was aborted yesterday because of a problem with its GPS navigational system.  Dragon's on-board computers recognized an incorrect value in navigational data about the spacecraft's position relative to the ISS and automatically terminated the arrival sequence, placing itself into a holding pattern on a "racetrack" trajectory around the ISS while ground controllers diagnosed and fixed the problem.  Other than the navigational error, the spacecraft was in perfect shape.

Dragon does not dock with the ISS, but is berthed to it.   Once it reaches a point 10 meters from the ISS, astronauts use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab it.  Once it is in Canadarm2's grasp, ground controllers move it over to a docking port and install it onto the port.   In this case. Dragon was grappled by Canadarm2 at 5:44 am Eastern Standard Time (EST), a few minutes ahead of schedule.  It will be berthed to the Harmony port at about 8:30 am EST today.

Launched on Sunday, also a day later than originally planned, this is SpaceX's 10th operational cargo mission to the ISS for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract and is designated SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10.  Dragon is full of 2.5 metric tons (5,500 pounds) of supplies, scientific experiments, and equipment.  It will remain docked to the ISS for about a month and then return to Earth.  Dragon is the only one of the four spacecraft (Russia's Progress, Japan's HTV, and the U.S. Dragon and Cygnus) that resupply ISS that is designed to survive reentry.  Thus it can return the results of scientific experiments and equipment that needs repair or replacement.


SpaceX CRS-10 (SpX-10) Dragon captured by International Space Station's robotic Canadarm2, February 23, 2017.  Photo credit: NASA

Russia's latest cargo spacecraft, Progress MS-05, was successfully launched yesterday.  It docks with the ISS under its own power and is due to arrive at 3:34 am EST tomorrow.  It is carrying 2.9 MT of propellant, oxygen, water, and dry cargo.

ISS is a partnership of the United States, Russia, Canada, Japan and 11 European countries. The crew members currently aboard are NASA's Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough, Europe's Thomas Pesquet, and Russia's Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzhikov, and Oleg Novitsky.   Pesquet and Kimbrough were at the Canadarm2 controls this morning for the grapple.

Progress MS-05 Cargo Ship Successfully Launched to ISS While Dragon Closes In - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Feb-2017 (Updated: 22-Feb-2017 09:10 AM)

Russia successfully launched its Progress MS-05 cargo spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS) at 12:58 am ET this morning.  It is the first Progress launch since a December 1, 2016 failure.  Meanwhile, SpaceX's Dragon cargo spacecraft, which was launched on Sunday, will arrive on ISS in a few hours at about 6:00 am ET. [UPDATE:  Dragon's arrival was aborted because of an apparent problem with the spacecraft's GPS system.  SpaceX will try again tomorrow.]

Russia uses Soyuz rockets to launch both crews and cargo to the ISS (Soyuz is also the name of the spacecraft that transports crews).  Several versions of the Soyuz rocket exist.  This is the last launch of the Soyuz-U version.  A third stage failure of a Soyuz-U rocket doomed the Progress MS-04 mission on December 1, 2016.  Although a different version of the Soyuz rocket is used for crews, they are similar enough that NASA and Roscosmos were waiting for the success of this launch before resuming crew flights.


Launch of Russia's Progress MS-05 Cargo Spacecraft on Soyuz-U Rocket from Baiknour Cosmodome, February 22, 2017 EST.  Photo credit:  NASA tweet.

NASA refers to this as Progress 66 because it is the 66th Progress mission to the ISS.  Progress has been in use since 1978, however, resupplying the Soviet Salyut 6, Salyut 7 and Mir space stations long before ISS existed.  The spacecraft has been upgraded several times over the decades and given different designations:  Progress, Progress M, Progress M_M and now Progress MS.  The first of the MS series was launched on December 21, 2015.

Progress MS-05 is carrying 2.9 metric tons of propellant, oxygen, water and dry cargo to the ISS.  Six crew members are aboard, forming Expedition 50:  NASA's Peggy Whitson and Shane Kimbrough, the European Space Agency's Thomas Pesquet, and Roscosmos's Andrey Borisenko, Sergey Ryzhikov and Oleg Novitsky.   Docking is scheduled for 3:34 am ET on Friday.


International Space Station Expedition 50 Crew.  Photo credit:  NASA

Three other cargo spacecraft also take supplies to the ISS:  Japan's HTV and two U.S. commercial spacecraft, SpaceX's Dragon and Orbital ATK's Cygnus.  NASA purchases delivery services from SpaceX and Orbital ATK rather than owning the rockets and spacecraft.

SpaceX launched its 10th operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission on Sunday, designated SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10.  The Dragon spacecraft, carrying 2.5 metric tons (5,500 pounds) of cargo, will arrive at ISS at about 6:00 am this morning.   Unlike Progress, which docks with the ISS, Dragon and Cygnus are berthed to the space station.  They maneuver close to the ISS and astronauts use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab them.  Ground controllers then use Canadarm2 to move the spacecraft and install them onto docking ports.  NASA TV coverage of Dragon's arrival begins at 4:30 am ET, with grapple at about 6:00 am ET and installation at approximately 8:30 am ET.