Military / National Security News
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
SpaceX scrubbed the launch of its 10th Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS) today just 13 seconds before liftoff. Two technical problems cropped up with the Falcon 9 rocket during the final phases of the countdown. One was resolved, but the other -- involving a steering mechanism on the Falcon 9 rocket's second stage -- worried flight controllers who decided to wait until the problem was better understood. Another launch opportunity exists tomorrow (Sunday) morning, but the company and NASA have not yet announced if they will try to launch at that time.
The Dragon spacecraft on this SpaceX CRS-10 or SpX-10 mission is carrying approximately 5,500 pounds of supplies and experiments to the ISS crew. Among the cargo are 40 mice (jokingly called mousetronauts) that are part of a bone healing experiment conducted by the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health called Rodent Research IV. They were loaded into Dragon yesterday as part of the "late load" cargo. If the launch does not take place tomorrow, they and other late load items will have to be removed and replaced, so the launch could not occur again until Tuesday at the earliest. However, Russia is launching its own cargo spacecraft, Progress MS-05, early Wednesday morning Eastern Standard Time, so NASA will have to determine how to interweave the schedules.
This will be the first SpaceX launch from NASA's Launch Complex-39A, which was used for Apollo missions to the moon and space shuttle launches. NASA is leasing the pad to SpaceX. SpaceX also leases launch pads from the Air Force at the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS) and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. SpaceX's prior ISS cargo missions have launched from CCAFS Space Launch Complex-40, but it was badly damaged during a September 1, 2016 explosion that destroyed a Falcon 9 rocket and its Amos-6 commercial communications satellite payload. SpaceX already was preparing LC-39A for launches of Falcon 9 and the Falcon Heavy, which is in development, so was able to rather quickly move this launch to LC-39A. Whenever this launch takes place, SpaceX plans to land the Falcon 9 first stage at a different CCAFS launch complex for a third time. SpaceX routinely tries to recover its first stages so they can be reused. Sometimes they land on autonomous drone ships at sea and sometimes on land depending on the rocket's trajectory and how much fuel remains after deploying the payload into orbit.
During the countdown this morning, one problem developed with the autonomous flight termination system (FTS) being used as the primary range safety abort system for the first time on a SpaceX launch. Range safety is an Air Force responsibility and the Air Force is transitioning to this new type of automated system for all launches. SpaceX President and COO Gwynne Shotwell said at a press conference yesterday that they have been flying the automated system in "shadow" mode for some time and although they were directed by the Air Force to use it as the primary system for this launch "we would have done it anyway." NASA Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana said at the same press conference that NASA is in complete agreement with the Air Force. He views the autonomous system as safer and more reliable than the "human-in-the-loop" system that has been used historically. Today's problem was a software issue that produced "inconsistent data," but was readily resolved.
The other problem was with a thrust vector control (TVC) system on the rocket's second stage. The TVC system steers the rocket. The SpaceX team tried to resolve the issue, but decided at T-13 seconds to abort the launch. SpaceX President Elon Musk tweeted in response to a question that he was the one who made the decision.
He explained his reasoning in other tweets
Yesterday, a different problem arose. A small helium leak was discovered in a second stage system that, if it did not work properly, the second stage could not have been deorbited after it placed the Dragon spacecraft into orbit. Rocket stages can pose debris hazards in space if they are not deorbited. SpaceX decided to proceed with the countdown and perform a helium spin-up pressurization test at T-1 minute before liftoff. Musk said today that he did not see a connection between that leak and the TVC problem, but also did not rule it out.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its biennial assessment of high-risk government programs yesterday. The report addresses programs in all parts of the government, including civil and national security space programs. NOAA's weather satellites have been on the high-risk list for several years, but GAO praised NOAA's progress with its GOES series of geostationary weather satellites and concluded they no longer warrant inclusion. NOAA's polar orbiting satellites remain on the list. GAO also added DOD's weather satellite program to the high-risk list because DOD lacks a comprehensive plan for providing required capabilities.
DOD and NOAA historically have operated separate polar-orbiting weather satellite systems to meet national security and civil requirements respectively. In 1994, the Clinton Administration decided to merge the programs with an expectation that a more cost effective solution would result. Instead, the combined program -- the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) -- encountered significant delays and cost overruns. The Obama Administration terminated NPOESS in 2010 and directed NOAA and DOD to resume separate programs. No NPOESS satellites were ever launched.
Polar-orbiting satellites, as the term implies, orbit around Earth's poles and can view the entire globe. The United States and Europe cooperate in obtaining and sharing weather satellite data. DOD, NOAA and Europe's EUMETSAT operate separate polar-orbiting weather satellites that pass over points on Earth at different times of the day. DOD satellites are in the early morning orbit, EUMETSAT's in the mid-morning orbit and NOAA's in the afternoon orbit. Combining all that data results in more accurate forecasts.
DOD purchased a large number of its Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites in the 1990s, several of which remained in storage and available for launch when NPOESS was cancelled. Thus it did not have a sense of urgency to develop a substitute program. By contrast, NOAA did not have spare Polar Operational Environmental Satellites (POES) and quickly proceeded with a new Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) program. The first JPSS is scheduled for launch this year. Until it is operational, NOAA must rely on the Suomi-NPP satellite, which NASA built to demonstrate new earth observation technologies. Launched in 2012, it was not designed as an operational satellite, but NOAA seconded it into service and it is part of the operational weather satellite constellation now. It had only a 3-year design life, however, so GAO continues to be concerned about a potential data gap if Suomi-NPP fails before JPSS is operational.
Because it thought it had sufficient satellites in storage to cover several years, DOD moved slowly in designing its own new system. However, the DMSP-19 satellite failed soon after launch in 2014. DOD's ambivalence about when or if it would launch the last of the series, DMSP-20, led Congress to demand that DOD either launch it by 2016 or dismantle it rather than continuing to pay expensive storage costs. It was not launched.
Consequently, as GAO reported, DOD now finds itself relying primarily on DMSP-17, a satellite launched in 2006. It has a plan for the future, the Weather Satellite Follow-on--Microwave (WSF-M), with the first operational satellite scheduled for launch in 2022. GAO characterized the WSF-M plan as "not comprehensive," however. GAO criticized DOD because it "did not thoroughly assess options for providing its two highest-priority capabilities, cloud descriptions and area-specific weather imagery ... due to an incorrect assumption about the capabilities that would be provided by international partners." The WSF-M does not address those requirements, GAO said, and DOD will have to rely on DMSP-17 until 2022, posing the risk that if DMSP-17 fails before then, a data gap will occur. Hence the decision to add this program to GAO's high-risk list.
NOAA also operates geostationary weather satellites in the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite -- GOES -- series. Geostationary satellites remain in a fixed position relative to a point on Earth and GOES is especially useful for monitoring tropical ocean regions where hurricanes form. The first of a new version of those satellites, GOES-R (now GOES-16), was launched last year. Concerns about potential data gaps in geostationary weather satellite coverage put the GOES program on GAO's high-risk list for several years, but GAO has concluded that NOAA resolved those issues and removed GOES from the high-risk list for this year's report.
Update, February 15: At press time this morning, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee's website listed Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) as the ranking member of its space subcommittee. However, later this morning committee Democrats issued a press release with an updated list of its members showing that Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) is the ranking member of that subcommittee. Our table has been updated accordingly. Peters remains as a member of the subcommittee.
Original Story, February 15, 2017. House Democrats have announced their full committee and subcommittee members of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, filling out the rosters for the congressional committees that oversee the nation's space programs for the 115th Congress. Memberships on the other space-related committees were announced earlier.
Oversight and funding of the U.S. space program involves a number of committees. The list below is only of those with the most direct responsibilities and is not meant to be comprehensive. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee and the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee have jurisdiction over all government agency operations, for example, but they rarely deal with space issues. Similarly, the committees that oversee the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) in the Department of the Interior (which operates the Landsat satellites) or the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) in the Department of Commerce that assign spectrum to commercial and government users respectively do not often focus on space issues.
The following table, therefore, is limited to the authorization and appropriations committees for NASA, NOAA, DOD, the Intelligence Community (IC), and the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is part of the Department of Transportation. It shows the top Republicans and Democrats ("ranking members") at the full committee and subcommittee level. Complete rosters of committee and subcommittee members are on each committee's website.
State Abbreviations: AL (Alabama), AZ (Arizona), CA (California), FL (Florida), IL (Illinois), IN (Indiana), MA (Massachusetts), MS (Mississippi), NC (North Carolina), NH (New Hampshire), NJ (New Jersey), NY (New York), OR (Oregon), RI (Rhode Island), SD (South Dakota), TN (Tennessee), TX (Texas), VA (Virginia), VT (Vermont), WA (Washington)
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.
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.
Here is our list of space policy events for the week of January 30 - February 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.
During the Week
Tuesday is NASA's official Day of Remembrance, honoring the crews of Apollo 1, space shuttle Challenger, space shuttle Columbia and other astronauts who lost their lives in connection with spaceflight. Some events have already taken place, including two at Kennedy Space Center last week to specially honor the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 1 fire that killed Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee on January 27, 1967. Nineteen years and a day later, on January 28, 1986, Challenger's 7-person crew died 73 seconds after launch when an O-ring on a solid rocket booster failed. Seventeen years and four days after that, on February 1, 2003, Columbia's 7-person crew died during their descent to Earth after a 16-day mission when superheated gases entered a hole in Columbia's wing punctured by a piece of foam that fell from the shuttle's External Tank during launch. NASA has a special Day of Remembrance webpage honoring all of them. Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot will lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery on Tuesday and other events will take place at various NASA centers around the country.
In Congress this week, a new version of the NASA Transition Authorization Act is being readied for potential consideration by the Senate. The Senate passed a 2016 bill in the closing days of the 114th Congress, unfortunately after the House already had completed its legislative business so the bill did not clear Congress. Members and staff have kept working on it and a 2017 version with some modifications is being circulated. According to a draft we've seen, there are three especially interesting changes. 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." 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. The 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. Discussions are still ongoing, apparently, about potential language regarding best practices for using Space Act Agreements. The course of legislation is rarely smooth, so there's no guarantee the bill will be introduced and considered this week, but we hear that's the plan.
Also on the Senate side, a vote is scheduled for Tuesday at 12:20 pm ET on the nomination of Elaine Chao to be Secretary of Transportation. A vote on Wilbur Ross's nomination to be Secretary of Commerce has not been formally scheduled, but is expected this week.
Subject to a rule being granted, the House will take up a completely different piece of legislation this week. A still unnumbered House Joint Resolution (H. J. Res.) would disapprove of a final rule issued by DOD, NASA and the General Services Administration (GSA) on August 25, 2016 that went into effect on October 25, 2016 to implement Executive Order 13673 regarding Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces. The resolution is posted on the House Rules Committee's website and states that Congress disapproves of 81 Fed. Reg. 58562 to improve contractor compliance with labor laws. The House Rules Committee will take it up on Tuesday. Assuming the rule is granted, the House is scheduled to vote on it on Thursday.
Off the Hill, the American Physical Society is holding its "April Meeting" in January. It began yesterday and runs through January 31. Of particular note is a presentation by the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, on Tuesday. He will talk about "Science and Technology Cooperation as an Effective Bridge for Strengthening Relations Between Russia and the US." The conference is not focused on space and Kislyak's talk may be quite broad about S&T cooperation, but it would be surprising if the ISS doesn't get mentioned.
Way, way, way off the Hill -- in Vienna, Austria -- the Science and Technology Subcommittee of the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (UNCOPUOS) holds its annual two-week meeting beginning tomorrow.
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, January 30
Monday-Tuesday, January 30-31 (actually began on January 28)
Monday, January 30 - Friday, February 10
Tuesday, January 31
Thursday, February 2
Friday, February 3
Former NOAA Administrator and NASA astronaut Kathy Sullivan has been selected by the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum (NASM) as the 2017 Charles A. Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History. She will spend her one year in that position writing a book about satellite servicing as a philosophy and practice. As a space shuttle astronaut, she not only was the first American woman to conduct a spacewalk, but was on the shuttle mission that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope, the poster child of satellite servicing.
Sullivan resigned as Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and Administrator of NOAA on January 20 at the end of the Obama Administration. An oceanographer by training, she has a long career in aerospace including her years as a NASA astronaut (1978-1993), president and CEO of the interactive science center COSI Columbus (Ohio), Director of Ohio State's Battelle Center for Mathematics and Science Education, and an earlier stint at NOAA as chief scientist.
The Lindbergh Chair of Aerospace History is a competitive one-year fellowship for senior scholars who are writing or plan to write books in aerospace history. According to the NASM press release, Sullivan's book on satellite servicing will discuss its "philosophy and practice, with attention to the creation of design features, tools, procedures, training, tests and evaluation."
Sullivan flew on three space shuttle missions: STS 41-G in 1984 when she became the first American woman to make a spacewalk, just months after Svetlana Savitskaya became the first woman ever to do it; STS-31 in 1990 that deployed Hubble; and STS-45 in 1992, the first Spacelab mission devoted to studying planet Earth.
Hubble is renowned today for its spectacular images of the universe and groundbreaking science. It was the first space telescope designed to be serviced by astronauts, which turned out to be a really good thing because its mirror was deformed. Astronauts on the first servicing mission essentially fitted the telescope with a special pair of glasses that made it see properly. Over the course of four more servicing missions, the instruments and major components, including the solar arrays, were replaced. Launched almost 27 years ago, it is still returning valuable data because of its ability to be serviced.
Its successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), however, is not designed to be serviced and debate continues about whether it should have been and whether future space telescopes should be. NASA has been working on developing robotic satellite servicing technology through the RESTORE-L program at Goddard Space Flight Center for more than a decade and recently elevated those efforts from an "office" to a "division." NASA efforts are aimed at servicing satellites in low Earth orbit. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) technology development program. Orbital ATK and Space Systems Loral also are working on satellite servicing technologies.
The idea has many skeptics in terms of whether it could ever become a commercially viable enterprise and others question whether the government is competing with the private sector in developing the technologies, so there is much for Sullivan's book to elucidate.
The White House announced today that President Trump will nominate former Rep. Heather Wilson to serve as Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF). Wilson represented the 1st district of New Mexico from 1998-2009 and currently is President of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. She will succeed Deborah Lee James who was SecAF during most of President Obama's second term.
Wilson graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the Air Force Academy in 1982, then earned Masters and doctoral degrees (D.Phil) in international relations as a Rhodes Scholar at England's Oxford University. After service in Europe as an Air Force Officer (Captain), she joined President George H.W. Bush's National Security Council staff in 1989. In 1991, she left government service and founded Keystone International in Albuquerque, NM. In 1995, she was appointed by the Governor of New Mexico to be Cabinet Secretary for Children, Youth and Families.
She was elected to Congress in 1998 and served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. In 2008, she decided to run for Senate to succeed Sen. Pete Dominici, but lost in the primary. She ran again for the Senate in 2012 to succeed Sen. Jeff Bingaman, but lost in the general election.
Wilson has been President of the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology in Rapid City, SD since 2013. Among its activities, the School has a close relationship with the Sanford Underground Research Facility in Lead, SD where research on neutrinos, dark matter and subatomic particles is conducted. She is the first female President of the School.
James resigned as SecAF at noon on January 20 when the Obama Administration ended. Under Secretary of the Air Force Lisa Disbrow became Acting SecAF at that point and will remain in that position until Wilson is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in. Disbrow is a retired Air Force Reserve Colonel with more than 30 years of national security experience including serving as a senior systems engineer at the National Reconnaissance Office.