Military / National Security News
It's summer vacation time so our list of upcoming space policy related events is rather sparse. Therefore we are listing everything we know about for the entire month of August rather than just one week. The Senate will be in session this week before it heads out on its summer recess; the House left town last week. Both will return on September 8.
During the Month
The Senate still has one more week to go before it recesses for its summer break. It plans to focus on efforts to defund Planned Parenthood, which is not a space policy issue per se, but there is worry that it could derail the Continuing Resolution (CR) that Congress will need to pass before October 1 to keep the government operating. There is no expectation that any of the 12 regular appropriations bills will clear Congress by then, so either a CR must be enacted or there will be a government shutdown. You can check your favorite news sources to get up to date on the Planned Parenthood controversy, but the bottom line for the space program is that Republicans have seized on the issue to prevent any government funds from going to the non-profit organization. Democrats have said they will try to block any such effort and the White House said the President would veto any legislation to defund it. If the CR includes such language, and the President vetoes it ... well, that means no funding for DOD, NASA, or NOAA either. It's a high stakes game and impossible to guess the outcome.
Apart from that, there is an outside chance the Senate could pass S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act. It was reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on July 22. The bill is thought to be non-controversial, but its lead sponsor is Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who recently took to the floor of the Senate in front of the C-SPAN cameras to castigate the Senate Majority Leader, calling him a liar. The Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), controls what bills are brought up so he might not be inclined to bring up one sponsored by Cruz, but then again, it is always difficult to predict what will happen in Congress. (Even fellow Republicans felt Cruz went too far, especially since there's a Senate rule that one Senator will not impugn the integrity of another Senator on the Senate floor. They showed their displeasure this week, denying Cruz a routine request for a "sufficient second" for a roll call vote on a procedural matter. Some also disputed Cruz's account of what McConnell had said. These sorts of intra-party disputes are usually kept private.)
For those who are curious, by the way, the House and Senate may meet in "pro forma" sessions during August (or anytime), but no legislative activity takes place at those times. The idea is to prevent the President from making "recess appointments," which he is allowed to do when Congress is in recess for more than three days. So the House and Senate schedule pro forma sessions where only one Member or Senator must walk into the chamber and gavel it into and out of session so it is not legally in recess for an extended period.
Not on our list of events because space policy is unlikely to arise as an issue, but perhaps of interest anyway, is Thursday's Fox News Republican presidential debate. If you've lost count, there are 17 Republicans running for President. Those that rank in the top 10 based on an average of 5 national polls on Tuesday (Fox has not said which national polls it will use) will be on stage together at 9:00 pm ET. The others will have a separate opportunity earlier in the evening (5:00 pm ET). Check your local TV listings for what channel it will be on in your area.
The rest of month is relatively quiet. The events we know about as of Sunday (August 2) morning are listed below.
Monday-Tuesday, August 3-4
Wednesday-Thursday, August 5-6
Thursday, August 6
Sunday, August 16
Monday-Wednesday, August 24-26
Tuesday, August 25
Friday, August 28
Monday-Wednesday, August 31-September 2
UPDATE, July 30, 3:50 pm EDT: This afternoon the Senate passed the House's short-term (three-month) extension of the highway bill, that has no Export-Import Bank reauthorization, sending it to the President for signature. The Senate also passed its own long-term highway bill, that includes the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization adopted by amendment earlier this week; it will be waiting for House action when the House returns in September.
ORIGINAL POST, July 30, 8:19 am EDT: The House began its summer recess last night without passing legislation to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, leaving it in limbo at least until September. Instead it passed a short-term extension to the highway bill without an Ex-Im Bank provision and sent it to the Senate before turning out the lights. The House will meet in pro forma sessions, but no legislative business is scheduled until September 8.
The Bank's charter, originally enacted in 1934, must be periodically renewed. It expired on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed. The issue splits the Republican and Democratic parties with some members of each insisting that the bank is essential to U.S. exports and therefore to U.S. jobs, while others assert it is corporate welfare for a few big companies. Boeing is often mentioned in the latter regard. Advocates claim that small and medium size businesses also benefit not only because of their own projects, but because many are suppliers to the big companies.
The Bank helps provide financing for U.S. exports, including communications satellites, for example. The Aerospace Industries Associate and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.
Reauthorization of the Bank is the source of bitter contention in the Senate, but earlier this week that chamber did agree to a multi-year extension of the bank as an amendment to a must-pass highway bill. There is no substantive connection between the highway bill and the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization, but attaching one to the other was part of a strategy to get both passed before the summer recess began. Senate supporters of the Ex-Im Bank hoped that enough House members would be willing to accept reauthorization of the Bank in order to keep money flowing from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation projects. The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires tomorrow (July 31).
The House Republican leadership rejected that strategy, however, and instead passed a separate short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund authorization (until October 29) without any reference to the Ex-Im Bank. That bill is now pending before the Senate, which is likely to pass it since they do not want highway funding to end and the House has gone home for five weeks so nothing else can pass both chambers until September.
During an appearance at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C.. yesterday, Boeing chairman, W. James McNerney, Jr said that the Boeing is "actively" considering moving some of its operations overseas so it can take advantage of other countries' equivalents of the Ex-Im Bank. Explaining that the whole point of the Bank is to level the playing field with foreign competitors, McNerney said If there will be no U.S. Ex-Im Bank, "we are actively considering now moving key pieces of our company to other countries and we never would have considered it before this craziness on Ex-Im."
He called it "the triumph of ideology over any description of private business." Boeing is the biggest beneficiary by dollars, he agreed, but not by transactions: "There are more deals for small and medium size companies than big companies," adding that "70 percent of the value added of our airplanes are made up by small companies ... who would never have a chance to export without us." The congressional situation is a "sign of dysfunctionality" when two-thirds of the House and of the Senate support reauthorization, but legislation cannot pass because of the "extremes" of the two parties.
UPDATE, July 28, 2015, 8:10 am EDT: The Aerospace Industries Association issued a press release praising the Senate action and urging the House to follow suit.
ORIGINAL POST, July 27, 2015, 11:28 pm EDT: The Senate tonight adopted an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank as part of a Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill. House Republican leaders stated earlier today, however, that they will not bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.
The amendment, offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on behalf of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), has been the source of bitter contention with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other conservatives who consider the bank to be "corporate welfare." The bank assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products, and advocates insist that without it American exports will suffer and jobs will be lost. The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.
The bank's authority to operate ended on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed. The bank can continue current operations, but cannot take on new projects until and unless it is reauthorized.
The Kirk amendment would extend its authorization for four years. Yesterday the Senate voted 67-26 to allow the amendment to be offered. Tonight the vote was 64-29 to adopt it. The Senate has yet to vote on the underlying bill. Even assuming that it passes, its fate is far from certain.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed today that the House will not take up the Senate bill. The House and Senate disagree not only on the Ex-Im Bank issue, but on the underlying highway bill that allows disbursement of funds from the Highway Trust Fund for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires on Friday, July 31. The House is scheduled to begin its August recess on Friday, so some type of agreement will have to be made - perhaps a short term extension. The House already passed a 5 month extension of the highway bill -- without an Ex-Im Bank provision -- and McCarthy wants the Senate to pass that bill, not the version now before the Senate.
What happens next is anyone's guess.
The Senate took a small, but important, step towards potentially reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank during a rare Sunday session today. The action does not reauthorize the bank, but sets up a vote on an amendment to do just that later in the week, perhaps as early as tomorrow (Monday).
The Export-Import Bank, created in 1934, assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products such as communications satellites. The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among those trying to convince Congress to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank. Its authority to operate expired on June 30 when previous efforts at reauthorization failed. The bank may continue existing operations for now, but cannot take on new projects.
The issue is divisive within both the Republican and Democratic parties. Advocates argue that without the bank, exports of American goods will suffer and jobs will be lost. Opponents insist that it is corporate welfare. Boeing and General Electric are frequent targets of those critics because they reportedly received two-thirds of the bank's loan commitments between 2007 and 2013, but advocates, including President Obama, counter that smaller companies also benefit, including those that are suppliers to the big companies.
To expedite action, the Senate voted today to allow Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to offer an amendment to an unrelated highway bill later this week. The highway bill is "must pass" legislation because without it funds from the Highway Trust Fund cannot be disbursed to pay for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. That bill also is controversial. It is far from certain that even if the Senate does pass the highway bill, with the Ex-Im bank reauthorization included, that the House will agree with either of those actions. The House is scheduled to begin its month-long August recess on Friday, with last votes expected no later than 3:00 pm ET on Thursday.
That gives the Senate only a few days to pass its bill and try to reach a compromise with the House in order to send legislation to the President' before the Highway Trust Fund authorization expires on July 31.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a strident opponent of the bank and on Friday publicly accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of lying to him and other Senate Republicans about the issue in a blistering statement on the Senate floor (which is available on YouTube). Such intra-party disputes are not typically aired in front of the C-SPAN cameras.
The procedural vote today to allow Kirk to offer the amendment was 67-26 (60 votes were needed). Cruz and 25 other Republicans voted against it.
That does not signal what the fate of the amendment itself will be when it is finally debated, however. Some of those who voted to allow the amendment to be offered may nonetheless oppose the amendment itself. At the moment, the Kirk amendment is on the schedule for tomorrow (Monday, July 27), along with several other amendments.
The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has a useful report explaining the Ex-Im Bank controversy.
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 26-31, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in session this week.
During the Week
The House is scheduled to begin its annual August recess on Friday (no votes are scheduled after Thursday at 3:00 pm ET), so this is the last week for Congress to deal with any "must pass" legislation for programs expiring at the end of July. To that end, the Senate is beginning its week today, Sunday, in a continuing attempt to pass a bill to reauthorize expenditures from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation programs that otherwise will expire on July 31. While the highway bill per se is not a space-related issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has agreed to allow an amendment to be offered to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank. Last month, Congress failed to reauthorize the bank and its charter expired. The bank is still operating, but cannot take on new projects. The bank offers loan guarantees for customers wanting to buy products -- like communications satellites -- from U.S. manufacturers and the Aerospace Industries Association and Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters. Critics claim it is corporate welfare. The issue splits both parties and has the Senate in turmoil. Even if a bill does pass the Senate, there is no guarantee the House will go along. The Senate is scheduled to be in session during the first week of August, but if the House recesses as planned, it would not be able to pass a compromise until it returns in September, so the Senate would have to agree to something the House already passed, perhaps a short-term extension for the highway funds and/or the Ex-Im Bank. What will happen is very much up in the air.
With such disarray, the likelihood of other legislation passing is diminished, but it is always possible that relatively non-controversial bills could get through. One possibility is the Senate Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297, which was formally reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (S. Rept. 114-88). Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is the main sponsor of the bill, however, and his verbal attack on McConnell on the Senate floor on Friday because of the Ex-Im bank issue (available on YouTube) might weigh against it getting a spot on the calendar, which McConnell controls. It really is anyone's guess, though.
This is "NAC week" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA. Many of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committees will meet early in the week, with the full NAC meeting Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning. The committee and Council meetings are available by WebEx and telephone for anyone who wants to listen in. Bear in mind that times listed on the agendas are in local time at the meeting venue -- Pacific Daylight Time in this case.
On Tuesday, trying to tune into those meetings will compete with three interesting events in Washington, DC: the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB's) public meeting to finalize its report on the October 2014 SpaceShipTwo crash beginning at 9:30 am ET; a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing at 10:00 am ET on planetary exploration -- including testimony from the Principal Investigators for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres (Alan Stern and Christopher Russell, respectively); and a NOAA briefing at 1:00 pm ET on 10 Years Since Hurricane Katrina featuring NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan and the heads of NOAA's four line offices, including Steve Volz, who is in charge of NOAA's satellite programs. All three events are available by webcast or WebEx.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Monday-Tuesday, July 27-28
Monday-Wednesday, July 27-29
Monday-Friday, July 27-31
Tuesday, July 28
Tuesday-Wednesday, July 28-29
Wednesday-Friday, July 29-31
SpaceX’s Elon Musk told reporters during a media teleconference that preliminary conclusions point to an upper stage strut that “broke free” as the likely cause of the Falcon 9 failure on June 28. He did not state when the rocket would return to flight, only that it would not be before September.
Musk said that initial assessments point to the failure of a metal strut inside the rocket’s upper stage as the likely cause of the explosion that destroyed a Dragon spacecraft carrying cargo bound for the International Space Station (ISS). It was the company’s seventh operational cargo resupply mission for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract – SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7. (Musk and other SpaceX officials use "second stage" and "upper stage" synonymously when referring to the segment that failed.)
Musk explained that the steel struts are designed to hold high-pressure helium bottles inside the upper stage’s liquid oxygen tank, but that one of them snapped while the stage was accelerating. When the strut broke, the helium bottle “shot to the top of the tank at high speed,” overpressurizing the tank and likely causing the explosion.
The strut, which is provided by a supplier that Musk did not want to name to avoid unnecessary “recrimination,” failed at 2,000 lbs of thrust - five times below what it is designed to withstand. SpaceX has been able to replicate the failure, conducting tests on thousands of these struts and finding that a few others snapped at a point far below their rated force level. As a result, Musk said SpaceX will move to individual testing of each strut independent of outside certification. This, he said, will result in a cost increase, but not “of a significant amount” so that the price of the vehicle should remain unaffected.
Musk said that the failed strut was the “most probable, but not definitive outcome” of the ongoing investigation, noting that there is still work to do. Investigators are still puzzling over telemetry data that shows a drop in helium pressure, and then a rise back to starting pressure, something he described as “quite confusing.” Analysis is ongoing.
The investigation also revealed that if the Dragon had deployed its parachutes before falling into the ocean, the spacecraft would have survived. The software in this cargo version of Dragon (Dragon 1), Musk explained, is inert on ascent and was not programmed to release the parachute in the event of a failure. Software in the version of Dragon under development for taking people into space (Dragon 2 or Crew Dragon) is programmed to do just that. Musk said they would be working on software fixes to ensure that the Dragon 1 cargo spacecraft can do what it needs to survive. “We could have saved Dragon if we had the right software there,” he said.
Musk said SpaceX customers, including NASA and the U.S. Air Force, had been briefed and were very supportive, indicating “no diminished faith in SpaceX.”
He indicated that return to flight would happen no sooner than September and that who the next customer will be is not clear. While addressing the strut issue is “fairly straightforward” Musk said he wants to ensure the issue is diagnosed correctly and that flights do not resume without everyone being “on board” with the changes. In a press release issued after the media teleconference, the company said it expects to "return to flight this fall and fly all the customers we intended to fly in 2015 by the end of the year."
This was SpaceX’s first launch failure in seven years, and the only one for the majority of its 4,000 employees who joined the company during that time. Musk noted that to some degree the company became “a little bit complacent,” and that this failure was an “important lesson” moving forward.
SpaceX said in its press release that the failure was "regrettable," but the review process ultimately will "yield a safer and more reliable launch vehicle."
Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 20-24, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them. Congress is in session this week.
During the Week
SpaceX will hold a telecon with media representatives tomorrow (Monday) at noon Pacific Time (3:00 pm ET) to discuss preliminary findings from its investigation of the June 28, 2015 SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure. The emailed announcement says it is for media only and will last 30 minutes, which does not allow much time for Q&A, but undoubtedly will be of great interest.
Meanwhile, NASA and Rocosmos are getting ready to launch Soyuz TMA-17M with three new crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday Eastern Daylight Time (where it already will be Thursday local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan). NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko will join three colleagues (NASA's Scott Kelly and Roscosmos' Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka) already on board, restoring the crew complement to its usual six. The TMA-17M launch was delayed following the Progress M-27M launch failure in April.
NASA said on Friday that it would have another press briefing on the results from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto this coming Friday, but the time and other details have not been announced yet.
Those and other events coming up this week that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.
Monday, July 20
Tuesday, July 21
Tuesday-Wednesday, July 21-22
Tuesday-Thursday, July 21-23
Wednesday, July 22
Thursday, July 23
Friday, July 24
Hillary Clinton became the second of the 2016 presidential candidates to offer strong support for the space program. Speaking at a town hall meeting in Dover, NH, today she explained not only why she supports investing in space exploration, including the need to track asteroids, but repeated the story of her desire to become an astronaut when she was a teenager.
Clinton responded to a question about her views on the space program -- which began with a shout out from the questioner for the New Horizons mission to Pluto -- by saying "I really, really do support the space program."
She recounted the story.of how she wrote to NASA when she was about 14 asking what she needed to do to become an astronaut. NASA replied that they did not accept applications from.girls. After lauding the fact that that changed as demonstrated by Sally Ride and other woman astronauts, Clinton said she clearly would not have qualified anyway and has not lost any sleep over it.
She continued to talk for several minutes about the need for the government to invest in the space program along with other science and technology activities for many reasons, including economic benefits and discovery. She also mentioned security and in that vein noted in particular the need to track asteroids.
"I think [the space program] is a good investment, so on my list of things that I want our country to invest in, in terms of research and innovation and .... basic science, exploring space, exploring our oceans, exploring our genome. We're at the brink of all kinds of new information. Let's not back off now!"
The questioner had asked if the time has come for space activities to be done by corporations instead of the government. Clinton said she has nothing against partnering with corporations, but "they are more in the applied science arena, not in the discovery and research arena that I think only the government can support."
The town hall meeting was broadcast by C-SPAN.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush expressed his support for the space program last week.
Two congressional hearings over the past two days illustrate the complexity of the current U.S.-Russian relationship. At a Senate hearing yesterday, the Marine general nominated to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) said that Russia poses the greatest threat to U.S. national security. Today, at a House hearing on the International Space Station (ISS), a NASA official said that human spaceflight "transcends" the differences between the two countries.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, Commandant of the Marine Corps and President Obama's pick to succeed Army Gen. Martin Dempsey as CJCS, was asked at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Service Committee (SASC) yesterday what is the greatest threat to U.S. national security. "My assessment today ... is that Russia presents the greatest threat to our national security," he replied, adding that Russia is a nuclear power whose recent behavior is "nothing short of alarming."
Conversely, at today's House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing on ISS operational challenges, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, said the U.S.-Russian relationship on ISS is "very strong." NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, are "mutually dependent" on each other for operating the ISS.
"The challenge of human spaceflight ... transcends ... the toughness of the outside world," Gerstenmaier said. He characterized the technical relationship between the two countries with regard to operating ISS "extremely strong and extremely transparent in spite of governmental tensions" and the two are working together "extremely effectively."
The two hearings and the comments made therein are independent of each other, but taken together demonstrate the complicated U.S.-Russian relationship.
The Dunford hearing itself did not touch on space activities, though in a 75-page set of answers to questions posed prior to the hearing, Dunford agreed that space situational awareness and protecting space assets need more attention, that he would review U.S. efforts to address China's developments in space, and review policies and programs to ensure U.S. warfighters can depend on the advantages that space confers.
The ISS hearing will be summarized in an upcoming SpacePolicyOnline.com article. Check back here tomorrow.
SpaceX founder, CEO and lead designer Elon Musk said tonight that he expects preliminary conclusions about the cause of the June 28 Falcon 9 failure by the end of the week.
SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket failed 139 seconds into flight last Sunday, carrying a Dragon spacecraft full of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). It was the company's seventh operational Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission under contract to NASA -- SpaceX CRS-7 or SpX-7. The first six, and an initial demonstration flight, were all successful.
Musk tweeted this evening that he expects preliminary conclusions by the end of the week.
The failure came after 18 consecutive Falcon 9 mission successes.
That would be about two weeks to determine the cause and inform customers and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch industry. Sunday's launch was authorized pursuant to FAA's regulations. Under those provisions, the company leads the failure investigation with oversight by FAA.
SpaceX has a long list of government and commercial customers who are awaiting word on the launch schedule impact of the failure.
SpaceX finally won certification from the Air Force in May to compete for national security launches after a lengthy process. How this failure will affect its competitiveness with the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which has been the monopoly provider of those services since 2006, or SpaceX's ongoing effort to develop a crew version of its Dragon capsule as part of NASA's commercial crew program, is yet to be seen. It may depend in large measure on how long it takes to rectify the problem and restore confidence in the Falcon 9 rocket.