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Senate Commerce and House SS&T Committees Approve Space Bills

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Sep-2016 (Updated: 21-Sep-2016 10:22 PM)

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee each held markups today of  space-related legislation. The Senate committee approved the 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act and the INSPIRE Women Act.  The House committee approved the TREAT Astronauts Act.  Congress is only scheduled to be in session for a few more weeks in 2016, but if all parties are sufficiently motivated to reach compromise, there is more than enough time to get the bills to the President's desk before the end of the 114th Congress.

Senate 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act, S. 3346

Several amendments were adopted to the version of the Senate NASA authorization bill that was introduced last week, S. 3346.  The bill has many wide-ranging provisions, but the main thrust is to provide stability to NASA's human spaceflight program as a presidential transition nears.

The goal is to avoid the type of disruption that happened when President Obama took office and cancelled the George W. Bush-administration's Constellation program.  The goal of that program was to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars.  After bitter negotiations, Congress passed and the President signed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that set NASA on its current course of developing the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft to send humans to orbit Mars in the 2030s and land sometime thereafter.  The current effort rejects the Bush Administration's directive to return humans to the lunar surface (though NASA officials make clear they hope international and/or commercial partners might do so) and instead directs NASA to engage in the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to Mars.

The bill officially establishes in law that human exploration of Mars, including potential human habitation on the surface of Mars, is a NASA objective.  It lauds the progress made by the SLS and Orion programs and requires NASA to submit a critical decision plan and strategic framework laying out the details of how it will achieve the goal of landing humans on Mars.  The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industry advocacy group, praised the bill, especially provisions expressing the sense of Congress that the first uncrewed SLS/Orion mission -- Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) -- should take place in 2018 and the first crew mission, EM-2, in 2021.

The bill is decidedly less enthusiastic about ARM.  ARM has two components -- the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) that will send a robotic probe to pluck a boulder from the surface of an asteroid and move it to lunar orbit, and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) where astronauts will visit the boulder and collect samples to return to Earth. The bill questions the value of ARRM compared to its costs and requires NASA to submit a report on alternatives for demonstrating the technologies needed for the Mars goal.  However, it does not require that the program be terminated.

The bill authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA for FY2017.  It does not address funding beyond that one year, which begins October 1.  The total is the same as approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which has not been considered by the House yet.  It is $202 million more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved.  The money is allocated to NASA's budget accounts in line with the Senate Appropriations CJS bill except that the extra $202 million is added to the Exploration account, which pays for SLS and Orion.

During the markup today, Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) noted that the bill authorizes less for science and education than they received in FY2016.  Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida), the top Democrat on the committee and one of the bill's sponsors, replied that the House Appropriations Committee's CJS bill provides more for science and suggested Markey convey his concerns to his former House colleagues apparently in the hope that the appropriations bill would be more generous.   Authorization bills do not provide money at all, they just recommend funding levels.  Only appropriations bills actually give money to agencies like NASA.

The Planetary Society issued a statement praising the bill, especially the requirements for more details on the plans for getting humans to Mars, but it also "urged" NASA's authorizing committees to work closely with appropriators "to ensure that funding for NASA's leading science programs is sufficient to fully carry out the priorities" determined through the National Academies Decadal Survey process.

The bill is bipartisan.  It was introduced by three Republicans and three Democrats and most of the amendments also had bipartisan sponsorship.  The amendments mostly make refinements to existing language, but Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) sponsored one that adds a new section directing NASA essentially to embrace satellite servicing for science and human exploration missions. 

The Gardner amendment requires the NASA Administrator to identify "orbital assets" in both of those mission directorates that could "benefit from satellite-servicing related technologies" and "evaluate opportunities for the private sector to perform such services or advance technical capabilities by leveraging the technologies and techniques developed by NASA programs and other industry programs."

NASA is pursuing the RESTORE-L program, which is focused on demonstrating satellite servicing of a government satellite -- Landsat 7 -- in low Earth orbit (LEO).  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own program for servicing satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) -- Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS).   Meanwhile, two companies are pursuing their own satellite servicing systems -- Orbital ATK and SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral).  In an emailed statement to, Mike Gold, SSL Vice President for Washington Operations, thanked the committee for including the provision.  He called satellite servicing "a critical capability not only for NASA but for commercial activities and national security interests," adding that "leveraging the commercial satellite servicing capabilities that will result" from programs like RESTORE-L and RSGS "represents a commonsense approach to maintain America's space leadership" and create jobs.

One portion of the bill, entitled the "Scott Kelly Human Spaceflight and Exploration Act," includes a section on "Medical Monitoring and Research Relating to Human Space Flight."  It authorizes NASA to provide medical monitoring, diagnosis and treatment of current U.S. government astronauts and former U.S. government astronauts and payload specialists for psychological and medical conditions associated with their spaceflights. The House committee held a hearing on this topic in June and marked up a bill specifically on this issue today, which is discussed below.

House/Senate INSPIRE Women Act, H.R 4755

The Senate committee also approved the Inspiring Next Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, H.R. 4755, without amendment.  The bill already has passed the House.  It requires the NASA Administrator to take steps to encourage women to study STEM education fields.   No money is authorized.

House TREAT Astronauts Act, H.R. 6076

The House committee approved the To Research, Evaluate, Assess and Treat (TREAT) Astronauts Act, H.R. 6076, which was introduced yesterday.  The committee held a hearing in June on the topic of lifetime medical care for astronauts.  Not all former astronauts are guaranteed medical care after they leave government service and NASA also wants to be able to monitor astronauts over their lifetimes to determine any long term psychological and medical effects of spaceflight. 

Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) explained that the bill covers any gaps for former astronauts who are not covered by either the military's TRICARE program or the civilian Federal Employees Claims Act.   Space Subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), who represents the district that includes NASA's Johnson Space Center where many former astronauts live, called it a "common sense, fiscally responsible" bill to ensure former astronauts receive support for medical issues associated with their spaceflights.

This House bill and the provision in the Senate NASA authorization bill are tightly written as to who is covered, though the definitions are somewhat different.  Also, the Senate language is a "sense of Congress" provision that NASA "may" provide such medical services, while the House bill is directive, stating that the Administrator "shall" do it and goes into much more detail.

Russia Sets New Launch Date for Soyuz MS-02, Will Reduce Russian Crews to Two

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Sep-2016 (Updated: 20-Sep-2016 07:03 AM)

Russia's TASS news service reports today that the new launch date for Soyuz MS-02 is November 1.  The launch had been scheduled for this Friday, September 23, but was postponed for technical reasons.  Separately, Russia has decided to reduce the number of cosmonauts it has aboard the International Space Station (ISS) from three to two in order to reduce resupply requirements.

Soyuz MS-02 is the second launch of this new version of the Soyuz spacecraft.  It replaces the Soyuz TMA-M series.  The first Soyuz MS launch similarly was postponed for several days -- from June 24 to July 7.  In that case, the problem reportedly was with a new docking system in this variant of the spacecraft.

Anatoly Zak at reports that the Soyuz TM-02 launch delay is due to a short circuit in the spacecraft and engineers are trying to determine the exact location -- in the descent module or the instrument module.  Depending on the location of the problem, it could take weeks or months to remedy, or the Russians could substitute the Soyuz spacecraft intended for the next launch, Zak writes.

Today's TASS announcement did not provide any details.   It quotes an unnamed NASA official at Russia's mission control center as saying that a formal decision was made yesterday that the launch would take place on November 1.  (It is odd that Russia's official news service could not get a Russian official to make a statement.)

Whenever it launches, it will take NASA's Shane Kimbrough and two Roscosmos cosmonauts - Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko -- to the ISS.  They will join three crew members already aboard -- NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin.

The ISS typically has six crew members:  three from Russia, at least one American, and the other two from the United States or other partners (Japan, Canada, and Europe).  They rotate on 4-6 month schedules, traveling to and from ISS on Soyuz spacecraft, which can accommodate three people at a time.

Roscosmos decided earlier this month, however, that beginning with the launch of Soyuz MS-04 in March 2017 (a launch date that probably now will slip), only two Russians will be aboard until Russia launches its long-awaited science module, the Multirole Laboratory Module (MLM).   It is currently scheduled for launch in December 2017, but the launch date has been delayed a number of times.  Meanwhile, the Russian crew complement will be resized to reduce resupply requirements, allowing Russia to launch only three Progress cargo ships instead of four.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 19-25, 2016 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Sep-2016 (Updated: 19-Sep-2016 08:26 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 19-25, 2016 (through next Sunday) and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

On Friday, Resources for the Future (RFF) will hold a memorial service for Molly Macauley at the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C., from 3:30-5:30 pm ET.  All of Molly's friends and colleagues are welcome to attend, but RFF would appreciate an RSVP so they know how many people to expect.   Please RSVP to   Molly, a renowned space economist and integral part of the space policy community for three decades, spent almost all of her career at RFF before her tragic death on July 8.

It will be a busy week before that.

The Senate plans to bring a Continuing Resolution (CR) to the floor tomorrow (Monday) for a cloture vote.  If it gets 60 votes, the Senate can proceed to debate, and, hopefully, pass it.  Word is that it will keep the government funded through December 9. The bill reportedly has controversial policy provisions ("poison pills") that could delay its approval, but rumors are that once it passes, the Senate will adjourn until after the elections instead of remaining in session through the end of the month.  That would put the House in the position of either agreeing to the Senate bill or allowing the government to shut down on October 1, which would not play well in the upcoming elections.  A budget deal was crafted last fall by then-House Speaker John Boehner, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and President Obama that set the spending limit for FY2017.  The draft CR reportedly sticks to that agreement, but very conservative House Republicans disapproved of the deal and are not happy at the prospect of passing a CR that adheres to it (because it spends too much on non-defense programs), so there is indeed a chance that a government shutdown could occur. We think it is only a very small chance in an election year, but as we've said many times, trying to predict what Congress will do is risky.

The Air Force Association is holding its Air, Space, Cyber conference at National Harbor, MD (outside Washington, DC) Monday-Wednesday. Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James kicks it off tomorrow morning. There is no indication on the conference's website as to which sessions might be livestreamed, but James tweeted an invitation yesterday for everyone to listen to her talk, so presumably hers will be, at least.  Hopefully AFA will make iivestreaming information available soon. [UPDATE: the link to watch James, from 10:20-11:15 am ET, is  Two other sessions Monday afternoon also will be livestreamed as noted at that site.  The list of livestreamed sessions for the rest of the conference are not posted yet.]

While that's underway, on Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a nomination hearing for Gen. John Hyten to become Commander of U.S. Strategic Command.  He currently is Commander of Air Force Space Command.  He seems to be well liked and respected on the Hill, so apart from the usual Senate challenges on getting any nomination approved (usually for reasons completely unrelated to the nominee), it should go smoothly.

On the civil space side, it's Mars, Mars, Mars this week.  Explore Mars holds a seminar on Capitol Hill on Tuesday morning on "Humans to Mars: Why, How, and When."  On Wednesday afternoon, Lou Friedman, former executive director of the Planetary Society, will discuss his new book "Human Spaceflight From Mars to the Stars" at George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. From Thursday-Sunday, the Mars Society holds its annual conference at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. 

The Senate Commerce Committee will markup its "NASA Transition Authorization Act" on Wednesday that, among other things, seeks to protect NASA's human spaceflight program -- which is aimed at sending humans to Mars in the 2030s -- from any major changes as the result of the upcoming presidential transition. Congress directed NASA to build a new, big rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), and a crew spacecraft to go with it (Orion) in the last NASA authorization act that became law (in 2010).  It has diligently ensured that the Obama Administration (through NASA) implements those programs, often providing more funding than the President requested.  They want to make sure a new President doesn't disrupt that effort the way President Obama did when he came into office and cancelled President Bush's Constellation program. The NASA authorization bill is one of several bills the committee will markup that day, including the STEM education-related INSPIRE Women bill that the House passed earlier this year.

SLS is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and its Director, Todd May, will address the Space Transportation Association on Capitol Hill on Thursday.  Also speaking to STA on Thursday is the President of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), Naoki Okumura.

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

Monday-Wednesday, September 19-21

Tuesday, September 20

Tuesday-Friday, September 20-23

Wednesday, September 21

Wednesday-Thursday, September 21-22

  • Dent:Space, Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco, CA

Wednesday-Friday, September 21-23

Thursday, September 22

Thursday-Saturday, September 22-24

Thursday-Sunday, September 22-25

Friday, September 23

  • RFF Memorial Service for Molly Macauley, Metropolitan Club, Washington, DC, 3:30-5:30 pm ET (please RSVP to RFF at

Russia Postpones Soyuz MS-02 Launch Due to Technical Reasons

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Sep-2016 (Updated: 17-Sep-2016 10:12 AM)

Russia's Roscosmos state space corporation announced today that the launch of Soyuz MS-02, scheduled for Friday, has been postponed for technical reasons.  A new launch date will be announced later. This is the second flight of this new version of the Soyuz spacecraft.  The first also was postponed close to launch.

Roscosmos posted the news on its website, saying (using Google translate):  "Roscosmos decided to postpone the planned September 23, 2016 launch of the spacecraft 'Soyuz MS-02' for technical reasons after routine tests at the Baikonur Cosmodrome.  The launch date of the spacecraft will be announced later."

Soyuz MS-02 will take three crew members to the International Space Station (ISS):  NASA's Shane Kimbrough and Roscosmos's Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov.  When they do launch, they will join three ISS crew already aboard:  NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin.

This is second flight of this new version of the Soyuz spacecraft -- Soyuz MS -- which replaced the Soyuz TMA-M series.  The first Soyuz was launched in 1967 and it has gone through several modifications over the decades, each with its own designation.  The MS version has improved solar arrays, a new digital computer, and a new docking system among other upgrades.

The first Soyuz MS launch, Soyuz MS-01, also was delayed.  The reasons were never officially speciified, but indications were that it was an issue with the docking system. Originally scheduled for June 24, it launched on July 7 instead.  Because this is a new version of Soyuz, the decision was made to take the longer 2-day trajectory to ISS to check out the spacecraft instead of the abbreviated 6-hour route used in recent years.  Soyuz MS-02 also will take the 2-day path.

Soyuz spacecraft have been the only means for taking crews to and from ISS since the United States terminated the space shuttle program in 2011.  NASA is engaged in public private partnerships with SpaceX and Boeing to build new "commercial crew" vehicles -- Crew Dragon and CST-100 Starliner, respectively -- that NASA hopes will begin routine flights in 2018 (test flights may occur next year).  Until then, Soyuz is the only one.  Soyuz is launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

China to Launch Tiangong-2 Space Station on September 15 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Sep-2016 (Updated: 15-Sep-2016 09:54 PM)

UPDATE: September 15.  Tiangong 2 was successfully launched on time today.

Original Story, September 14, 2016: China officially announced today that it will launch its second small space station, Tiangong-2, on September 15 at 10:04 pm China Standard Time (10:04 am Eastern Daylight Time).  Two astronauts will launch to the space station in mid-late October for a 30-day mission.

China's intention to launch Tiangong-2 this month was well known, but this is the first official announcement of the launch date and time.  It will launch from the Jiuquan launch center in the Gobi desert on a Long March 2-F rocket, the same type of rocket that will take the Shenzhou-11 crew into space in October.

China's Xinhua news service also said the first robotic resupply mission will be launched in April 2017.  The Tianzhou-1 cargo ship will be launched on the new Long March 7 rocket from China's new Wenchang Satellite Launch Center on Hainan Island.

The Tiangong space stations are small.  Tiangong-2 is just 10.4 meters long and 3.35 meters maximum diameter, with a mass of 8.5 metric tons (MT).  Tiangong-1 was launched in 2011 and hosted two 3-person crews, in 2012 and 2013, for approximately two weeks each.

Each of the 3-person crews included a woman astronaut (or "taikonaut"), but the Shenzhou-11 crew will be two men.

China plans to build a larger, 60 MT multi-modular space station in the early 2020s.

Still Time for a NASA Authorization Bill This Year? - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 13-Sep-2016 (Updated: 15-Sep-2016 10:02 PM)

UPDATE, September 15:  The Senate Commerce Committee will markup the Senate version of a FY2017 NASA authorization bill on September 21 at 10:00 am ET.

Original Story, September 13, 2016: Rumors have been circulating for months that NASA's authorization committees will try to get a new NASA authorization bill enacted before the 114th Congress gavels to a close at the end of the year. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) yesterday again exhorted the Senate to act on a NASA authorization bill the House passed last year and a Senate draft bill -- different from that one -- is circulating, but time is getting short.  One goal is to provide stability to NASA during the presidential transition and passage of legislation would give Congress a chance to get its policy choices formally on the table.

The House passed a FY2015 NASA authorization bill by voice vote in February 2015.  Although the funding recommendation were only for that fiscal year, which is long past, the policy provisions were adopted on a bipartisan basis.  Some have been overtaken by events, but Babin, who spoke at a Commercial Spaceflight Federation breakfast meeting yesterday morning, called it a "perfectly good bill" and urged the Senate to pass it or "quickly work with the House to negotiate a compromise."   He noted that the House and Senate versions of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which includes NASA, are in a "mature" stage and their funding levels could be "reconciled" into a new authorization bill.

Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually provide money to agencies like NASA.

The last NASA authorization act was enacted in 2010.   Its policy provisions remain in force, but the funding recommendations were only for three years, FY2011-FY2013.

Babin chairs the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee's Space Subcommittee.  The committee approved a more recent bill for FY2016 and FY2017 (H.R. 2039), but on a strictly party-line basis because, among other things, it recommended deep cuts to NASA's earth science program that Democrats strongly opposed.  No further action has occurred on that bill.

The FY2015 bill, H.R. 810 (itself is an update of a FY2014 bill that passed the House, but not the Senate), avoided highly charged partisan issues. The 128-page bill covers a lot of ground.  

A 49-page staff draft of a Senate authorization bill for FY2017 is circulating that is more narrowly focused, but at a top level has similar themes.  One key point on which the bills agree is that human exploration is a core NASA mission.  Both bills support continued use of the International Space Station (ISS) and sending humans to Mars and other locations in deep space.   Both want more details from NASA on how that will be accomplished.  H.R. 810 requires NASA to develop and provide to Congress a "Human Exploration Roadmap" detailing capabilities and technologies needed.  The draft Senate bill calls for a "strategic framework" and a "critical decision plan."  Both require that the role of international and commercial partners be included.

One focus of the draft Senate bill not included in H.R. 810 is stability at NASA during the presidential transition.  It includes a "sense of Congress" section that "the United States, in collaboration with its international and commercial partners, should sustain and build upon our national space commitments and investments across Administrations with a continuity of purpose..."  As discussed at a recent hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee that oversees NASA, there is bipartisan concern that NASA's programs could be disrupted again as they were when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program begun under his predecessor, George W. Bush. 

It should be noted that passage of a new NASA authorization bill may not provide any such assurance, however.  Congress passed two NASA authorization laws supporting Bush's Vision for Space Exploration and its Constellation program to return humans to the lunar surface by 2020 and then go on to Mars.   One passed in 2005 when Republicans controlled Congress, the other in 2008 when Democrats were in control.  The pair of laws signaled not only bipartisan congressional consensus, but agreement between the White House and Congress on the path forward for human exploration, a long sought goal of human spaceflight advocates who had seen earlier presidential initiatives fail to win congressional support.

The existence of those laws did not, however, deter President Obama from cancelling Constellation after a review by a blue ribbon panel concluded that NASA's budget would have to ramp up to $3 billion more per year to implement it.  Similarly, a new President could decide that the current program, with the goal of putting astronauts in orbit around Mars in the 2030s, is unaffordable.

Another place where H.R. 810 and the draft Senate bill agree is skepticism about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as one of the elements of that plan to get to Mars.  At the time H.R. 810 was written it was called the Asteroid Retrieval Mission and the bill requires a report explaining the need for and cost of the program.  The draft Senate bill points out that the cost for ARM has risen and the NASA Advisory Council has raised concerns, and the program is competing for resources with other aspects of the human exploration program.   It does not call for the program to be terminated, but offers a sense of Congress statement that alternatives should be considered for demonstrating the technologies needed for the humans-to-Mars mission and requires a report from NASA on those alternatives.

NASA's earth science program remains contentious in Congress, with many House and Senate Republicans arguing that NASA should focus on space exploration, not studying Earth, which other agencies could do.  Democrats insist that earth science research from space is a key aspect of NASA's science program and no other agency launches earth science research satellites.  NOAA is responsible for operational weather satellites and until recently was planning to launch some climate research sensors, but the White House decided to transfer those to NASA.   H.R. 810, written in 2015, apparently foresaw such a turn of events and stated that if NASA is given additional responsibilities in earth science, the White House needed to provide it with additional money.   The draft Senate bill is silent on earth science policy.

As for funding, the figures in H.R. 810 are no longer relevant. The draft Senate authorization bill would authorize $19.508 billion, the same total that is in the House Appropriations Committee's version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill.  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved $19.306 billion, which is $202 million less.  The draft Senate authorization bill allocates that $202 million to the Exploration account.  NASA's other accounts are funded at the same level as in the Senate Appropriations Committee's bill.

Congress is scheduled to be in session for the rest of this month before adjourning until after the November elections, although there are indications that the Senate may leave earlier than that if it can pass a FY2017 Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government funded for the first part of FY2017.   If it does, that would compress the time for reaching agreement on a NASA authorization bill.  H.R. 810 and the draft Senate bill are similar enough to provide a basis for compromise, but different enough to prevent one.  It is a matter of how motivated the involved parties are to pass a bill prior to this next presidential transition.

What's Happening in Space Policy September 12-16, 2016 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Sep-2016 (Updated: 12-Sep-2016 08:11 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of September 12-16, 2016 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

From Long Beach, California to Vienna, Austria, it's a busy week in space policy.

Starting in Long Beach, AIAA holds its Space 2016 conference Tuesday-Thursday.  Many sessions will be livestreamed and others will be posted later. The agenda on the livestream site tells you which is which. Note that all the times are Pacific Daylight Time, so add three for Eastern Daylight Time.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, DOD's Winston Beauchamp, and DFJ's Steve Jurvetson formally kick things off on Tuesday at 8:00 am PDT/11:00 am EDT.  There are many very interesting plenary and "Forum 360" presentations throughout the conference, as well as the Yvonne C. Brill Lectureship on Thursday evening (6:30-7:30 pm PT/9:30-10:30 pm ET). The Brill Lectureship is awarded every two years by AIAA and the National Academy of Engineering.  This year's honoree is Wanda Austin, President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation, who will speak on Engineering Leadership.  It will be livestreamed.

Just south of Long Beach, in Irvine, the National Academies Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Sciences (CAPS) is meeting on Wednesday-Thursday.  It will be available by WebEx and telecon.  Among the topics are updates on robotic Mars exploration, the Europa mission, efforts to ensure a reliable supply of plutonium-238 (needed to power spacecraft that travel too far from the Sun or will land somewhere that make solar power infeasible), and NASA's astrobiology program.

Jumping 3,000 miles to the East, astrobiology will also be a topic in Washington, DC at the Library of Congress's Kluge Center on Thursday.  The day-long symposium will discuss "The Emergence of Life:  On the Earth, in the Lab, and Elsewhere."   It will be filmed and the video posted later on the Kluge Center's website and YouTube.

Many other events are on tap in the Washington area.  We'll highlight just two here.  First. the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) will meet via telecon to discuss draft legislation proposed by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Oklahoma) to allow the FAA to perform an enhanced version of its current payload review process to authorize companies to conduct certain operations in Earth orbit, on the Moon and elsewhere in compliance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.  The FAA did that for Moon Express recently, but it was an ad hoc process.  The legislation apparently would codify that or a similar arrangement.  Anyone may listen in on the telecon.  

Second, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will hold a hearing on Thursday morning on long term military budget challenges. It's a broad topic and the witnesses are the service chiefs so it is difficult to anticipate the extent to which national security space issues will arise, but it would not be surprising.  Most SASC hearings are webcast.

The House and Senate are in session this week and still discussing what to do about the FY2017 budget. They need to pass something by September 30 (probably a Continuing Resolution that lasts until mid-December, but we know the peril of trying to guess what Congress will do) and what to do about the rest of the fiscal year.  Typically they end up passing one huge "omnibus" appropriations bill incorporating all 12 regular appropriations bills, but House Speaker Paul Ryan reportedly prefers several smaller "minibus" bills combining two or three at a time.  As a former chairman of the House Budget Committee, he is well versed in budget matters, but there are critical top-level issues to resolve starting with the total amount of money that Congress should approve.  The House and Senate reached agreement last fall on the total for FY2017, but very conservative Republicans did not vote in favor of it and want to more tightly constrain the amount for non-defense activities.

Moving even further East, the European Space Agency is sponsoring a "Space for Inspiration" conference at the London Science Museum on Wednesday-Thursday.  It will be webcast on ESA's website.  ESA Director General Jan Woerner heads an impressive set of government, industry, academic and non-profit speakers from Europe, Japan, and the United States, including several current and former astronauts.

A bit further East, Euroconsult will hold its annual World Satellite Business Week in Paris Monday-Friday.  The website does not indicate if any of the sessions will be webcast.   The "week" includes the 20th Summit for Satellite Financing, the 13th Symposium on Satcom Market Forecasts, the 8th Summit on Earth Observation Business, and SMARTPlane 2016.

Vienna, Austria is the last stop on this week's space policy journey.  The European Space Policy Institute (ESPI) will hold a two-day (Thursday-Friday) symposium on Space for Sustainable Development.

Meanwhile, we'll be keeping an ear out for any news on SpaceX's investigation of the on-pad explosion on September 1.   Elon Musk tweeted on Friday that it is the "most difficult and complex failure" the company has encountered.

Also, Chinese media report that the launch date for China's second space station, Tiangong-2 is in the September 15-20 time period.  It will launch on a Long March 2F from Jiuquan.  The first launch of China's new heavy lift Long March 5 from the new Wenchang launch site on Hainan Island is also coming up soon.

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-Wednesday, September 12-14

Monday-Friday, September 12-16

  • Euroconsult's World Satellite Business Week
    • 20th Summit for Satellite Financing (Sept. 12-15)
    • 13th Symposium on SATCOM Market Forecasts (Sept. 15)
    • 8th Summit on Earth Observation Business (Sept. 15-16)
    • SMARTPlane 2016 (Sept. 14)

Tuesday, September 13

Tuesday-Thursday, September 13-15

Wednesday, September 14

Wednesday-Thursday, September 14-15

Thursday, September 15

Friday, September 16

Saturday, September 17


Note:  this article was updated on September 12.

NASA Asteroid Sample Return Mission OSIRIS-REx on Its Way to Bennu

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Sep-2016 (Updated: 08-Sep-2016 09:40 PM)

NASA's first asteroid sample return mission, OSIRIS-REx, successfully lifted off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL on time at 7:05 pm ET.   Its Atlas V/Centaur rocket performed perfectly, sending the spacecraft on a two-year journey to the asteroid Bennu.  The sample it collects will return to Earth in 2023.

The Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security, Regolith Explorer (OSIRIS-REx) needs a gravity-assist from Earth to reach Bennu, which is in an orbit around the Sun similar to Earth's, but slightly further out (1.2 astronomical units compared to 1.0 for Earth).  The spacecraft is on a trajectory to return to Earth's vicinity in one year (September 2017), get the boost, and arrive at Bennu in August 2018. 

Bennu (pronounced BEN-yu) is quite small -- just 492 meters (1,614 feet) in diameter. The Empire State Building is 443 meters or 1,454 feet high, including antennas, by comparison.  OSIRIS-REx will not go into orbit around Bennu, but fly in formation with it for more than a year to study the surface and determine the best place to obtain a sample.  When ready, it will briefly touch Bennu's surface.  Using its 3.35 meter (11-foot) Touch-and-Go Sample Acquisition Mechanism (TAGSAM), it will get the sample, move away, and do a check to confirm a sample was obtained.  If not, it can try once more.

The spacecraft must wait until March 2021, when the orbits of Bennu and Earth are correctly aligned, before starting the trip home.  It will take 2.5 years to return to Earth.  The sample will be in a special capsule that will separate from the main spacecraft about four hours before Earth arrival, reenter through Earth's atmosphere, and land at the Utah Test and Training Center in Tooele County, Utah, in September 2023.  The same type of container was used for the Stardust mission that returned a sample of a comet to Earth in 2006.  The sample will be taken to the Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Texas for analysis.  The main OSIRIS-REx spacecraft will remain in space, orbiting the Sun.

The goal is to bring back at least 60 grams (2 ounces), but perhaps as much as 2 kilograms (4.4. pounds) of asteroid material. 

Bennu was originally designated 1999 RQ36 and received its name after an international student competition. A third grader, Michael Puzio, proposed Bennu, the name of an Egyptian mythological deity linked to rebirth.

The approximately $800 million mission (not including launch) is the third of NASA's New Frontiers series of Principal Investigator (PI)-led medium-size robotic planetary exploration missions.  The first two were the New Horizons spacecraft that reached Pluto last year after a 10-year journey, and the Juno mission that just arrived at Jupiter.

The PI for OSIRIS-REx is Dante Lauretta, Professor of Planetary Science and Cosmochemistry at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory.  NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center manages the program.  Lockheed Martin built the spacecraft, TAGSAM, and the return capsule.

OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta.  Photo Credit:  University of Arizona website

In addition to TAGSAM, OSIRIS-REx has several other scientific instruments including cameras, a laser altimeter, a visible and infrared spectrometer, a thermal emission spectrometer, and a regolith X-ray imaging system (REXIS).  REXIS is an MIT-Harvard student experiment to map elemental abundances on Bennu's surface.  It also has high- and low-gain antennas that not only provide communications back to Earth, but will provide data to measure the mass and gravity field of Bennu, providing information on the asteroid's internal structure and refining measurements of the "Yarkovsky Effect" of how the asteroid's orbit is affected by surface heating and cooling.

Japan returned the first sample of an asteroid, Itokawa, with its Hayabusa mission in 2010, but only particles were obtained because of a problem with the sample collecting device.  It launched a second mission, Hayabusa2, in 2014 that will return a sample of the asteroid Ryugu to Earth in 2020.   A number of other space missions have studied asteroids and comets, but Hayabusa and Stardust are the only ones so far to bring samples back to Earth for study and the amounts are meager.  OSIRIS-REx is expected to return a larger amount to allow more detailed scientific analysis of these primordial objects, adding to knowledge about the earliest era of solar system formation.

DOT Tells Congress It Can Handle Releasing SSA Data to CFEs if Authorized and Funded

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Sep-2016 (Updated: 08-Sep-2016 06:31 PM)

A new report to Congress from the Department of Transportation (DOT) concludes that it is feasible for a civil agency like DOT to take over responsibility from DOD for providing space situational awareness (SSA) data to commercial and foreign entities (CFEs).  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) has been advocating for such a change to enable DOD to focus its SSA efforts on meeting military requirements while someone else, like DOT, handles non-military users.

Bridenstine was the chief House sponsor of the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA).  Sec. 110 of that Act required DOT to study the feasibility of  processing and releasing safety-related SSA data and information "to any entity consistent with national security interests and public safety obligations of the United States."   Today's report satisfies that statutory obligation.

The report, written by DOT with concurrence from the Department of Defense (DOD) and in consultation with NASA, the Departments of Commerce and State, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Director of National Intelligence, summarizes past and present SSA arrangements, including the current "SSA Sharing Strategy."   That strategy, adopted in 2014, established three categories of SSA information users:  the public, SSA Sharing Agreement Holders (commercial, government, and intergovernmental satellite owners and operators that have signed a formal sharing agreement with U.S. Strategic Command), and U.S. national security partners.

Today, DOD's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC, part of U.S. Strategic Command) continuously collects data about the location of the18,000 objects in Earth orbit.  The report says that only 7 percent of those objects are operational satellites.  The rest are debris -- everything from intact, but non-functional, satellites to expended rocket stages to paint chips to remnants of damaged or destroyed spacecraft.

Global concerns about the debris created by in-space events were sparked by the 2009 accidental collision of an active U.S. Iridium communications satellite with a defunct Russian communications satellite and China's 2007 intentional destruction of one of its own satellites as an antisatellite test.  Both created a lot of debris and with more and more satellites being launched, especially hundreds of tiny "cubesats," SSA is increasingly vital to a growing number of users of the space environment. JSPoC calculates "conjunction analyses" to warn satellite owners/operators if objects pose a collision risk and issues alerts.

A civil agency like DOT, through the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), could assume responsibility for releasing safety-related SSA data on tracked space objects to non-military users under certain conditions, today's report concludes.  The conditions include:

  • interagency collaboration, especially a strong DOT-DOD relationship;
  • passage of legislation specifically authorizing DOT to take on this role and providing the same immunity from lawsuits as in 10 U.S.C. Section 2274 for DOD's SSA activities; and
  • providing additional resources for FAA/AST (a rough estimate of $20 million is provided in the report as an initial investment, with additional recurring costs for more personnel).

Bridenstine welcomed the report in a statement provided to

"This report shows that this Administration, including the Department of Defense, agrees with what I have been advocating for a long time: that FAA/AST is an appropriate agency to maintain space situational awareness and provide information and services to civil, commercial, and foreign actors. This will empower STRATCOM and JFCC Space to focus on fighting and winning wars, while a civil agency does routine conjunction analysis and reporting. I look forward to working with the DOD, FAA, and Congressional stakeholders to begin implementing such a framework.”

Bridenstine is also the primary sponsor of pending legislation, the American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA), which would go even further and take the first steps towards designating a civilian agency, like FAA, to be responsible for Space Traffic Management (STM) under which a satellite owner/operator could be compelled to take action to avoid a collision.   Currently, JSPoC issues conjunction analyses, but it is up to the satellite operator to decide what to do, if indeed the satellite is capable of moving.  ASRA is very broad and Bridenstine makes clear he does not expect it to pass in its entirety.  Instead, it is a repository of provisions that could be incorporated into other legislation over time.

Three ISS Crew Members Safely Return to Earth

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Sep-2016 (Updated: 06-Sep-2016 09:50 PM)

Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members safely returned to Earth tonight (Eastern Daylight Time).  They and their Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft landed in Kazakhstan at approximately 9:14 pm EDT (7:14 am Wednesday local time at the landing site) after 172 days in space.

The three crew members are NASA's Jeff Williams and Roscosmos's Oleg Skripochka and Aleksey Ovchinin.  They launched to the ISS on March 19, 2016. 

Williams now holds the U.S. record for total time in space -- 534 days over four flights.   Scott Kelly, who returned to Earth earlier this year after spending 340 days on ISS, still holds the U.S. record for continuous time in space.  One of the research goals of the ISS is to study how humans react to long durations in weightlessness in preparation for longer trips to destinations like Mars.

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams (left) minutes after landing in the Soyuz TMA-20M spacecraft in Kazakhstan on September 6, 2016 EDT (September 7 local time at the landing site).  Roscosmos cosmonaut Aleksey Ovchinin is on the right.  Screengrab from NASA TV

Three other crew members remain aboard the ISS:  NASA's Kate Rubins, JAXA's Takuya Onishi, and Roscosmos's Anatoly Ivanishin.  The ISS crew complement will return to its usual six later this month after the September 23 EDT launch of Soyuz MS-02.   Aboard will be NASA's Shane Kimbrough and two Roscosmos cosmonauts - Andrey Borisenko and Sergey Ryzhikov.

The ISS has been permanently occupied by two-to-six person crews since the end of 2000.  The crews rotate on roughly 4-6 month schedules, although two crew members remained aboard for 340 days -- NASA's Scott Kelly and Roscosmos's Mikhael Kornienko.  The ISS is a partnership among the United States, Russia, Japan, Canada, and 11 members of the European Space Agency.

Soyuz TMA-20M is the final flight of this version of the Soyuz spacecraft, which made its debut in 1967, but has been upgraded several times.  The most recent upgrade, the Soyuz MS series, had its first flight in July, taking Rubins, Onishi and Ivanishin to the ISS.