International Space News
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 20-24, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in recess this week.
During the Week
The week begins with a Federal holiday on Monday, Presidents' Day -- combining recognition of the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln (February 12) and George Washington (February 22). The House and Senate are taking the entire week off from their Washington duties and will work in their States and districts instead. Just before it left, the Senate passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017. The House could take it up anytime once it returns.
While things will be relatively quiet in Washington, there's a lot happening in Earth orbit.
SpaceX launched its 10th operational cargo mission (SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10) to the International Space Station (ISS) today on the second try (the first attempt was scrubbed on Saturday for technical reasons). The Dragon spacecraft, full of 5,489 pounds of supplies and equipment, will arrive at the ISS on Wednesday morning about 6:00 am ET. NASA TV will cover the arrival as astronauts use the robotic Canadarm2 to reach out and grab it so it can be attached (berthed) to a docking port. NASA TV coverage begins at 4:30 am ET.
Russia is also launching a cargo ship to ISS this week. The launch of Progress MS-05 is very early Wednesday morning Eastern Standard Time (12:58 am), with docking on Friday (NASA TV will cover both). This is the first Progress launch since a December 1, 2016 launch failure. A lot is riding on it, and not just the cargo. Russia uses the same type of rocket to send crews to ISS so this launch needs to demonstrate that the problems have been fixed so crew launches can resume.
Meanwhile, NASA's Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) will meet at Kennedy Space Center in public session on Thursday. The agenda includes updates on NASA's development of Exploration Systems (SLS, Orion and associated ground systems), commercial crew, and the iSS. One can listen to the meeting via telecon (no WebEx though). ASAP's most recent annual report expressed both praise and concern about safety at NASA. NASA's announcement last week that it is assessing whether to put a crew on the first flight of the Space Launch System might provoke discussion, too.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.
Monday, February 20
Wednesday, February 22
Wednesday-Thursday, February 22-23
Thursday, February 23
Friday, February 24
The Senate passed the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act today. The bill is very similar to one that passed the Senate in December as the 114th Congress was coming to an end. The House had completed its legislative business by then so could not act on it and that bill died at the end of the Congress. This new bill, S. 442, represents a compromise with the House, so expectations are high that it will quickly be passed by the House and presented to the President for signature.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the full committee, issued a joint press release along with other bipartisan members of the committee praising the bill for providing stability to NASA during this time of a presidential transition.
The new bill has some changes from the version that passed the Senate in December. One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) "safely, reliably, and affordably" and to serve as a crew rescue vehicle. Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System. A third is a finding that NASA has not demonstrated to Congress that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is commensurate with its benefits, a stronger statement than what was in the 2016 bill. The new bill also has a section on use of Space Act Agreements.
The bill authorizes funding only for FY2017, which is already underway. The total is $19.508 billion, the same as the amount recommended by the House Appropriations Committee, although allocated differently. Authorization bills recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually provide funding to government agencies like NASA. Congress has not completed action on the FY2017 appropriations bills. NASA is currently funded under a Continuing Resolution at its FY2016 funding level, with an exception that funds may be spent on the Space Launch System, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems programs to keep their schedules on track.
Now that the Senate has passed the bill, action moves to the House. Three weeks ago, the chairmen of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Brian Babin (R-TX), urged quick passage of the bill. The House is in recess next week, but action could come anytime thereafter.
NASA has agreed to develop a contingency plan for ensuring astronauts can travel to and from the International Space Station (ISS) in case the commercial crew systems under development by Boeing and SpaceX are further delayed. The action comes in response to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released today that outlines delays that have occurred already and problems that may result in further schedule slippage. NASA told GAO in writing it would have the backup plan ready by March 13, 2017.
NASA has had to rely on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011. It contracts with Russia's Roscosmos space state corporation to purchase seats on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. The current contract covers launches through 2018 and landings in 2019. About three years are required for Russia to build Soyuz spacecraft so NASA has endeavored in the past to sign contracts well in advance. Russia currently charges $82 million per seat.
NASA, Roscosmos and the other international partners in the ISS program -- Canada, Japan, and Europe -- have agreed to continue operating ISS at least until 2024. NASA provides transportation for the Canadian, Japanese and European astronauts under the terms of the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the ISS partnership.
In 2011, NASA initiated a commercial crew program whereby Boeing and SpaceX are developing the CST-100 Starliner and Crew Dragon spacecraft, respectively, through public-private partnerships (PPPs). In PPPs, the government and industry share development costs and the government guarantees it will purchase certain services, in this case a fixed number of flights. Boeing will use the United Launch Alliance's (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch CST-100 Starliner (ULA is a 50-50 joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin). SpaceX will launch Crew Dragon on its own Falcon 9 rocket.
At the beginning, NASA hoped commercial crew flights would begin in 2015, but that date slipped to 2017 at least in part due to lower than requested funding from Congress for NASA's share of the development costs. Additional delays have followed.
NASA's Commercial Crew Program (CCP) oversees the Boeing and SpaceX efforts and must certify that the systems meet strict standards. Operational flights cannot begin until the certification review is complete, which takes place after each company flies an uncrewed test flight and then a crewed test flight. At the moment, officially both companies plan to be certified in late 2018, but GAO reports that the CCP's own analysis "indicates that certification is likely to slip into 2019." GAO provided a chart comparing when the companies originally planned to be ready for their certification reviews and where they are now.
Risks identified by CCP and listed in the GAO report that could delay certification include the following:
With regard to the problems with SpaceX turbine blades, GAO reported: "During qualification testing in 2015, SpaceX identified cracks in the turbines of its engine. Additional cracks were later identified. Program officials told us that they have informed SpaceX that the cracks are an unacceptable risk for human spaceflight. SpaceX officials told us that they are working closely with NASA to eliminate these cracks in order to meet NASA's stringent targets for human rating."
GAO also concluded the companies could have difficulty meeting the requirement set by NASA that the probability of Loss of Crew (LOC) on a given flight be no more than 1 in 270. GAO listed three crew safety risks identified by CCP that apply to both companies:
NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier spoke about LOC requirements at a conference last week. He argued that too much importance is assigned to that metric, that it is useful in comparing designs, but not in determining absolute risk.
In light of all these problems and the impending end of the contract with Russia for Soyuz seats, GAO recommended that NASA develop and report to Congress on a contingency plan for how it could transport astronauts to and from ISS after the contract with Russia expires and whenever the commercial crew systems become available.
In a February 8, 2017 letter to GAO and published in the GAO report, NASA concurred and said it would develop such a plan by March 13, 2017.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of February 13-18, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
The House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold the year's first congressional hearing on NASA this week. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said that it was intended to provide a "panoramic" view of NASA's past, present and future to acquaint new committee members with the agency. No current NASA employees are on the witness list, but all four worked at the agency at one time: Harrison "Jack" Schmitt, who along with Gene Cernan were the last two men on the Moon (he also was a U.S. Senator from 1977-1983); famed Gemini and Apollo astronaut Tom Stafford, who currently chairs NASA's International Space Station Advisory Committee; Ellen Stofan, who just stepped down after three years as NASA's Chief Scientist; and Tom Young, whose storied career includes serving as mission director for the Viking program, director of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, and industry executive with Martin Marietta and Lockheed Martin (after Martin Marietta and Lockheed merged to form the current company). Schmitt was the only scientist to walk on the Moon. He is a geologist, as is Stofan. Should be really interesting. No shrinking violets on that panel! That's on Thursday at 10:00 am ET. The committee webcasts its hearings on its website and YouTube channel.
Earlier in the week. the D.C. alumni chapter of the International Space University is holding another of its "Space Cafes." These monthly informal get togethers always feature really interesting speakers and this time is no exception -- there will be four of them, in fact, all from Europe. Jean-Luc Bald from the European Union's Washington office; Micheline Tabache, the Washington representative of the European Space Agency (ESA); and Norbert Paluch and Juergen Drescher, the Washington reps for the French and German space agencies respectively. Remember that the venue for the ISU-DC Space Cafes has changed to The Brixton at 901 U Street, NW. The Space Cafes usually are on Tuesdays, but this one is Monday (tomorrow).
The date has slipped a couple of times already, but the current plan is for SpaceX to launch its first cargo mission to the ISS since the September 1, 2016 on-pad explosion on Saturday at 10:01 am ET. This is SpaceX's 10th operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission for NASA -- SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10. It will mark SpaceX's first launch from NASA's Launch Complex 39A, which SpaceX is leasing from NASA. Previous SpaceX East Coast launches have been from the pad SpaceX leases from the Air Force at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. That is Launch Complex-40, which was damaged in the September 1 incident. SpaceX plans to use LC-39A for launches of both its current Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy (FH) still in development. The company expected that the first launch from LC-39A would be the maiden flight of the FH last November. That didn't work out, but the launch pad was close to being ready so is available for this flight. SpaceX is confident it has fixed the problem that caused the September 1 explosion and the Falcon 9 returned to flight status with an Iridium launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA last month. No new date for the FH's maiden flight has been announced.
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 13
Tuesday, February 14
Wednesday-Friday, February 15-17
Wednesday-Saturday, February 15-18
Thursday, February 16
Thursday-Friday, February 16-17
Thursday-Saturday, February 16-18
Saturday, February 18
The 20th FAA Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC ended today. Among the many interesting keynotes and panel discussions were presentations by Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and Brian Babin (R-TX) and the head of NASA's human spaceflight program Bill Gerstenmaier.
Babin chairs the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee. Bridenstine is a member of that subcommittee as well as the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees many national security space programs. Gerstenmaier is NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO), which oversees the International Space Station (ISS) and its associated commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, as well as development of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew spacecraft, and other systems needed to send humans beyond low Earth orbit.
The conference was organized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).
CSF Chairman Alan Stern opened the conference yesterday with an announcement that surprised many in the audience. Pointedly telling reporters in the room that he wanted them to hear him clearly, he said CSF was announcing that it supports SLS. "Exploration of space for all purposes, including commercial spaceflight, is our interest and to that end the CSF is announcing that we see many potential benefits" in NASA's SLS program. "There are bright futures across the spectrum in commercial space and the SLS can be a resource that ... makes our future .. even brighter."
The statement is somewhat surprising because there is a tension between those who support government development of new launch vehicles and those who think that should be left to private sector companies with the expectation they can do it more quickly and cost effectively. Since CSF represents many of the companies developing and marketing space launch services, its support for a government-developed system was far from assured.
Here are snapshots from the remarks by Bridenstine, Babin, and Gerstenmaier.
Bridenstine's prepared remarks closely tracked those he made last year at this conference and in other venues. Today he listed four actions that are needed to effectively leverage the commercial space industry:
With regard to the last point, he advocates that AST be assigned responsibility for regulating non-traditional commercial space activities like asteroid mining or placing habitats on the Moon in order to comply with U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty. He is developing legislation that would create an "enhanced payload review process" building on AST's existing payload review process to authorize and continually supervise private sector activities in space. Currently AST regulates only launch and reentry, not what takes place in space. "We must ensure there is no question as to the statutory and regulatory mechanisms the United States government can utilize to affirmatively approve" non-traditional space activities.
His views on regulation of non-traditional space activities contrast with those advocated by Babin (discussed below). Bridenstine said in response to a question that he and Babin are good friends and although they have not reached agreement on how to harmonize their disparate approaches, he is optimistic they will.
Bridenstine is a leading candidate to become NASA Administrator. Although he is best known for his leadership in Congress on space issues at DOD, FAA and NOAA, his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) from last year addressed NASA issues, too. Today he declined to answer a question about whether he might become Administrator, but did express his strong support for NASA's SLS and Orion programs. He is identified with the commercial space sector and some SLS/Orion advocates worry that commercial space supporters may try to undermine SLS/Orion by arguing that the commercial sector can provide requisite capabilities quicker and cheaper. Bridenstine clearly stated today that SLS and Orion have his full support, however. He also said he is "100 percent" in favor of sending humans to Mars and reiterated his enthusiasm for a return to the Moon.
ASRA was never intended to pass as a stand-alone bill, but rather to serve as a repository for provisions that could be incorporated into other legislation. Ten of its provisions were included in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Bridenstine said today that he plans to introduce an updated version of ASRA and welcomes input.
Bridenstine also was asked about a letter he recently sent, along with two other Members of Congress, questioning whether DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program conforms with National Space Policy wherein the government is not supposed to compete with the private sector and is supposed to make government technologies available to commercial companies on an equitable basis. The letter states that DARPA's plan to award a $200 million contract to a single company, which would retain the satellite and the intellectual property, violates the policy and would distort the market. DARPA was about to award that contract to Space Systems/Loral, but Orbital ATK filed suit against DARPA yesterday to stop it. Orbital ATK is developing geosynchronous satellite servicing technologies itself. Bridenstine said today that RSGS is critical for national security and while there are some technologies that only DARPA can develop, such as completely autonomous mechanical servicing, others can be provided commercially, such as maneuvering capabilities. DARPA demonstrating technologies is one thing, but commercializing them is another, he argued, and that is why he wrote the letter.
Babin's speech also closely paralleled what he said last year. He and Bridenstine disagree on how to regulate new non-traditional space activities to ensure the United States complies with its international treaty obligations. While Bridenstine wants to create an enhanced payload review process administered by AST to provide regulatory certainty to companies, Babin does not accept that regulations are needed at all. He asserts that companies should not have to obtain government permission to conduct any space activity. Instead, the burden should be on the government to demonstrate that it has a requirement to intrude. He wants a regime where private sector activities are "presumed authorized" and the government can place restrictions on those activities only if it cannot address its concerns by any other means.
Babin also disagrees on the idea of AST taking responsibility for providing SSA to non-military users. He argues that there are other options -- other government agencies or a public private partnership -- that need to be explored first. As he said last year, he plans to hold hearings on these topics this year.
Gerstenmaier focused his remarks on risk -- specifically the risks inherent in human spaceflight. His office oversees the development of commercial crew systems by SpaceX and Boeing that will take crews to and from ISS beginning next year, as well as the Orion spacecraft that will take astronauts to cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars.
One metric for characterizing risk in this context is the probability of a failure that would kill the crew -- Loss of Crew (LOC). Gerstenmaier's message is that there will always be "unknown unknowns" in any system, no matter how many times it flies, and thus there will always be some level of risk The more the system flies, the more experience is gained, and the more engineers learn about what might fail. He noted that when the first space shuttle flew in 1981, models calculated the LOC at 1 in 500 to 1 in 5000. After accumulating data on all 135 shuttle flights -- two of which, Challenger and Columbia, ended with the deaths of their crews -- NASA concluded that the actual risk for that first flight was 1 in 12. At the end of the program, after those 135 flights, the risk overall was put at 1 in 90.
The LOC for the commercial crew program was set at 1 in 275, but he stressed that too much importance is assigned to that figure. He argued that LOC numbers are useful for comparing different designs, for example, but not in determining absolute risk. "Do not judge a spacecraft by its LOC number," he urged. The challenge is to not become complacent as systems start flying because there is always more to learn. "Stay hungry, stay curious, stay humble" and do not be afraid to discover new problems, discuss them, understand them, and solve them.
The public and other stakeholders need to understand and acknowledge these risks, he said, so NASA needs to learn how to effectively communicate with them as these new systems are about to come on line.
Note: Gerstenmaier said the LOC metric is 1 in 275 for commercial crew, but it actually is 1 in 270.
Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA, praised NASA's earth science program today. Many earth scientists are worried about what the Trump Administration's plans are for the program based on an op-ed written by two Trump space advisers during the presidential campaign. It proposed moving NASA's programs to other agencies. Culberson sounded the opposite note, however, suggesting that NASA assume responsibility for NOAA's satellite programs. Culberson is one of NASA's most ardent supporters on Capitol Hill, calling the agency a "strategic national asset" that will assure America remains great for centuries to come.
Culberson spoke to the Space Transportation Association (STA) on Capitol Hill today, enthusiastically supporting NASA overall, especially robotic missions to Jupiter's moon Europa and the Space Launch System (SLS).
Sending an orbiter plus a lander and a probe to descend through crevasses in Europa's ice-covered surface into the postulated ocean below is Culberson's passion. He is determined to find life elsewhere in the solar system and is convinced it will be on Europa. He has added money to NASA's budget for several years to execute Europa missions and included language in law directing NASA to do so. He pointed out today that it is illegal for NASA not to fly a Europa mission. He believes that finding extraterrestrial life will be a "pivot point" in human history that will enable "all of us to take NASA funding to the next level" and allow the agency to achieve even more.
He wants NASA to launch the Europa spacecraft and missions to study other "ocean worlds" in the solar system using SLS. He considers the rocket essential to NASA needs more broadly and wants it included in whatever infrastructure bill the Trump Administration sends to Congress. Just as President Eisenhower is remembered for creating the interstate highway system, Trump could go down in history for creating an interplanetary highway system, he suggested.
The solar system is not the limit, though. Culberson is a strong advocate for developing new propulsion systems to send spacecraft to nearby stars. His subcommittee's report on the FY2017 CJS appropriations bill calls on NASA to submit an "interstellar propulsion technology assessment report" with a conceptual roadmap to send a probe to Alpha Centauri in 2069, the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon, at 10 percent the speed of light (0.1 c). Today he said that Aerojet Rocketdyne told him it was possible to build a system that could achieve 0.3 c, although a company representative in the room suggested that was a misunderstanding.
In the nearer term, NASA is developing high power solar electric propulsion as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). Asked about prospects for ARM under the Trump Administration, Culberson said he did not know, but argued that some aspects of it, like propulsion development and gaining experience in human space operations, are essential for future NASA activities. "We need to think big, long term," he continued. "If we could lay out a 100-year plan for NASA, you've essentially laid out a 500-year plan for NASA, and if you could figure out a 500-year plan for NASA you would have in a real way laid the foundation for a 1,000 year plan. What a privilege that is."
He likes to look far into the future and considers NASA a strategic national asset that is "essential to preserve American leadership, to assure America not only is great, but stays great, and preserves that in the 21st, 22nd, 23rd, and 24th centuries and beyond."
For now, however, just getting appropriations bills enacted into law is a challenge. Culberson lamented the fact that the 12 regular FY2017 appropriations bills are not completed. NASA and all other government agencies are currently funded at their FY2016 levels by a Continuing Resolution (CR) through April 28, 2017. He said the final version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill is ready to be passed, though he could not share any of its details. He called on Senate Republicans to change Senate rules to prevent appropriations bills from being filibustered, meaning it would take only 51 instead of 60 votes for them to pass. The filibuster is a core Senate rule that allows a single Senator to prevent a bill from moving forward, one of the major differences between the how the House and Senate operate. Democrats changed the rule for presidential nominations when they last controlled the Senate out of frustration that President Obama's nominations could not be confirmed due to entrenched Republican opposition, but it remains in effect for other Senate legislation. Culberson wants appropriations bills to be treated the same as presidential nominations since they are the only bills that must pass Congress in order to keep the government operating.
Currently, though, 60 votes are needed and with Republicans holding only a slim majority (effectively a 52-48 split), he was not optimistic about quick passage of the FY2017 bills or future bills. CRs do not allow Congress to control agency programs to the same extent as the 12 regular bills.
Appropriations bills determine how much money agencies may spend and dictate how the money can be spent. Culberson became chairman of the subcommittee after Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) retired and the two hold similar views about China. Wolf originated language that prohibits NASA from spending appropriated funds to interact with China on space programs except under narrowly defined circumstances.
Culberson said today that Wolf was right. Remarking that America can do a lot better than spending just 0.4 percent of the federal budget on NASA, Culberson added that "China is not waiting on us. They are stealing us blind. The Chinese government is stealing every piece of technology they can and using what they've stolen from our program to very aggressively go after natural resources on the Moon and asteroids." Space is the "high ground of the 21st Century" and the Chinese "are going to use it in ways that we're not going to like."
Culberson spoke at length about NASA's space science programs and the value of the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies in identifying future missions. He did not mention NASA's earth science program during his prepared remarks, however. The second earth science Decadal Survey is currently underway. Many earth scientists are worried about what the Trump Administration may do with NASA's program because two Trump space advisors, Bob Walker and Peter Navarro, recommended in a Space News op-ed during the presidential campaign that NASA's activities be transferred to other agencies so NASA can focus on space exploration. It was not a new idea. Republican members of NASA's House and Senate authorization committees have advocated such a move for the past several years, but it has not been implemented. In the absence of any newer information about the Trump Administration's plans for NASA, the Walker-Navarro op-ed provides the only inkling of what may be in store.
In response to a question today, however, Culberson sounded the opposite point of view. He praised NASA's earth science program and suggested that NASA take responsibility for NOAA's satellite systems. "NASA's earth science continues to do great work. We have to have the facts. ... The role of NASA's earth science division should be to provide us good data free of any political filter or agenda. ... Work that's done there is essential. Quite frankly one thing I've been interested in pursuing is why we don't move satellite operations at NOAA over to NASA so NASA can handle all our earth observation and weather satellites because NASA does frankly a very good job with these things and NOAA's had problems... "
Here's our list of space policy events for the week of February 6-10, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session part of the week.
During the Week
The big event this week is the FAA's annual Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC on Tuesday afternoon and all day Wednesday. This year it is being organized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) and held at the Ronald Reagan Building. As usual it has top notch keynote speakers and panel sessions. One keynote many will be watching is Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who is speaking at 12:30 pm ET on Wednesday. He is widely rumored to be seeking the NASA Administrator job and, in any case, is a prominent congressional advocate for commercial space, especially broadening the role of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The agenda says nothing about webcasting. If we learn anything about a webcast, we'll add the link to our calendar item for this event. [UPDATE: A CSF spokeswoman says there will NOT be a webcast this year.]
The Senate will continue to consider nominations, some more contentious than others. No date seems to be set for confirming Wilbur Ross for Secretary of Commerce, but he was easily approved by the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. A Senate vote could come at any time.
Over on the House side, the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will hold its 115th Congress organizational meeting on Tuesday at 10:00 ET according to National Journal's Daybook, although it is not posted on the committee's website (as of Sunday morning, at least). The committee is holding its first hearing of the year (on EPA) at 11:00 that morning, so an organizational meeting in advance makes sense. The Republican committee leadership identified its key priorities for this Congress and announced subcommittee leadership and membership positions last week. "Constancy of Purpose Within NASA" is the fifth of the committee's top five priorities. Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) will continue to chair the Space Subcommittee and Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ) takes over as chair of the Environment Subcommittee (which oversees NOAA's satellite programs).
On a completely different topic, the Washington Space Business Roundtable (WSBR) will have a panel discussion on Spectrum Traffic Jams on Friday. The battle for spectrum -- especially freeing spectrum for use by the commercial sector by taking it away from government users, and satellite versus terrestrial needs -- wages on. Al Wissman from NOAA, Victoria Samson from the Secure World Foundation, and Valerie Green from Ligado join Caleb Henry of Space News for the lunchtime discussion. Note that the meeting is at the City Club of Washington (555 13th Street, NW), not the University Club where WSBR often holds its luncheon meetings.
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-Friday (February 6-10) (second week of meeting)
Tuesday, February 7
Tuesday-Wednesday, February 7-8
Tuesday-Thursday, February 7-9
Wednesday, February 8
Friday, February 10
Note: This article has been updated.
Two top Republicans on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee are urging quick passage of the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act. As we reported yesterday, a new draft is circulating right now and could see action in the Senate this week.
House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chaired the Space Subcommittee in the last Congress and is expected to do so again, both spoke at a Space Transportation Association (STA) event this evening. Smith said he hoped for action in the Senate in the next few days.
The Senate passed the 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act in the closing days of the 114th Congress, but the House had already completed its legislative business for the year so the bill did not clear Congress. A slightly revised version is now being readied and Smith and Babin both spoke optimistically about its passage in order to achieve one of its key themes -- continuity. Congressional Republicans and Democrats have stressed the need to avoid any major disruptions to NASA programs as happened early in President Obama's administration. Obama cancelled President George W. Bush's Constellation program to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and replaced it with a program to send humans to orbit Mars by the 2030s, with the Asteroid Redirect Mission in between. Obama also shifted NASA out of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS), instead using public-private partnerships to develop "commercial crew" capabilities. NASA will buy services from companies rather than building and owning its own system. Boeing and SpaceX were chosen to develop the commercial crew systems, which have not yet flown. NASA has not been able to launch people into space since the space shuttle was terminated in 2011. It relies on Russia to take astronauts to and from ISS.
The most recent NASA authorization act became law in 2010. Its funding recommendations covered only three years, through FY2013, although its policy provisions remain in force. The new draft NASA Transition Authorization Act would recommend funding only for FY2017, which is already in progress, but provides policy guidance for most of NASA's programs. Policy provisions typically do not expire.
Smith and Babin did not commit to when the House would take up a Senate-passed bill, but made clear that they hope for quick action, followed by a 2018 NASA authorization act.
Smith also said that the committee's first space-related hearing would take place in mid-February and would be a "panoramic view" of NASA's past, present and future to acquaint the many new members of the committee with NASA's activities. Republican members of the committee have been named, but not the Democrats, and subcommittee assignments are pending. Smith said there would be many space hearings this year, perhaps more than the 19 held last year.
No news was offered on when a new NASA Administrator might be nominated. Smith said only that he expected it "in coming weeks." Babin added that although he and Smith do not know any details of what President Trump's budget request for NASA will be, he is "confident" they all are on the same page -- providing NASA with appropriate funding because "a great nation needs a robust, reliable, executable and rational space exploration program and I think that our President Trump realizes this and knows it."