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Military / National Security News

X-37B Ready For Its Fourth Flight - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-May-2015 (Updated: 20-May-2015 11:23 AM)

UPDATE, May 20, 2015, 11:15 am ET:   The X-37B and its accompanying payloads lifted off on time at 11:05 am ET.

UPDATE, May 20, 2015, 4:45 am ET:   ULA has announced refined launch times.  There are two windows today:  11:05-11:15 am ET and 12:42-12:52 pm ET.  ULA will webcast the launch.  Coverage begins at 10:45 am ET.

ORIGINAL STORY, May 19, 2015: The Air Force is getting ready to launch the reusable X-37B spaceplane into orbit tomorrow, May 20.  There are at least two X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs) and it is not clear which is being launched, part of the mystery surrounding these ultra-classified space missions.

The Boeing-built X-37B looks like a small space shuttle orbiter and, indeed, has its origins at NASA.  Originally designed as an Orbital Space Plane to bring crews home from the International Space Station (ISS) in an emergency, NASA cancelled the program in 2004 after President George W. Bush reoriented the human spaceflight program towards returning astronauts to the Moon rather than ISS utilization.  The program then was transferred to DOD.  It does not carry a crew.

Photo of X-37B.  Photo credit Boeing (via

DOD will not say specifically what the X-37B does while it is in orbit.  Generally, it is described as a vehicle to test technologies.  Each of the three missions to date also seem focused on determining how long it can function on orbit, which each mission's duration exceeding the previous record.   The first X-37B mission, OTV-1, was a 224-day flight in 2010.  The second, OTV-2, was a 469-day flight from March 2011 to June 2012.  The third flight, using the same vehicle from OTV-1, made a 675-day mission from December 2012 to October 2014.  The Air Force has not announced which vehicle will be used for this mission.

Launch of AFSPC5, as the mission is known, aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), FL, is scheduled for May 20 between 11:05 am - 2:45 pm ET.  The weather forecast is 60 percent favorable.

How long the X-37B will remain in orbit is not publicly known, but apparently it will be at least 200 days.  NASA is conducting materials science tests on the mission and announced that its Materials Exposure and Technology Innovation in Space (METIS) will expose almost 100 materials samples to space condition for "more than 200 days."

The Air Force also has revealed that it will be testing a modified Hall thruster for the Air Force Research Laboratory.  Hall thrusters are a type of electric propulsion used on many satellites for in-orbit operations.  This test is related to improvements the Air Force wants for its Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellites.

This flight is getting more pre-launch publicity than usual because it is carrying several unclassified payloads.  In addition to METIS and the Hall thruster test, a National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) "Ultra Lightweight Technology and Research Auxiliary Satellite" (ULTRASat) pallet of 10 CubeSats from five organizations will ride-share on the launch.  Nine of the CubeSats are sponsored by NRO and one by NASA.  The CubeSats are housed in eight Poly-Pico Orbital Deployers (P-PODS).

The NRO-sponsored CubeSats include three from the U.S. Naval Academy, three from California Polytechnic Institute (which built the structure for the P-PODs), two from the Aerospace Corporation, and one from the Near Space Launch and Air Force Research Laboratory.  The NASA-sponsored CubeSat is for The Planetary Society (TPS) to test its LightSail concept for solar sailing.  There will be no sailing on this mission -- that's expected next year.  Right now, TPS is just testing the sail deployment sequence.

Typically the Air Force says nothing about X-37B missions after launch until shortly before landing. The three previous missions landed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.  This one could land there or at NASA's Kennedy Space Center (KSC) adjacent to CCAFS.  In 2014, NASA and the Air Force signed an agreement for the Air Force to use two of KSC's Orbiter Processing Facilities, once used for the space shuttle, and said that tests were conducted to demonstrate it could land at KSC's shuttle landing facility. 

What's Happening in Space Policy May 18-24, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2015 (Updated: 17-May-2015 06:08 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 18-24, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

The House and Senate will be rushing this week to complete a lot of legislative business before the Memorial Day recess.  The House, in committee and on the floor, will continue work on FY2016 appropriations bills against Democratic objections and a Presidential veto threat because Republicans used a gimmick to add money to the defense budget above the Budget Control Act (BCA) spending caps, but will not add a dime for non-defense spending.  Democrats want to do away with the BCA caps and the associated sequester threat entirely, but the Republicans are doing it only for defense.  Their tactic is to add money to the "Overseas Contingency Operations" (OCO) account that does not count against the caps and change the rules so the money can be spent for routine defense purposes rather than only for executing the war in Afghanistan, for example.  The end result is expected to be another long, drawn out budget process as Democrats and Republican fiscal conservatives (who also object to the OCO tactic, but want to keep the caps) battle in Congress and the President readies his veto pen.

For now, however, the House Appropriations Committee continues marking up FY2016 appropriations bills and sending them to the floor for the whole House to consider.   This week the full committee will mark up the Commerce-Justice-Science bill that includes NASA and NOAA (subcommittee markup was last week), while the defense subcommittee marks up the defense bill.  Both markups are on Wednesday morning; the defense markup is closed.

The House itself will take up two space-related bills that have been approved by the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee. The Weather Research and Forecasting Innovation Act (H.R. 1561) has bipartisan support and will be brought up under suspension of the rules on Tuesday.  That means it is expected to easily garner aye votes from at least two-thirds of the Members. The Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act (SPACE) Act, H.R. 2262 is quite the opposite.   Approved in committee on a strictly party-line basis, it will be considered on the House floor under regular order.  That means it will go first to the House Rules Committee to determine what (if any) amendments will be allowed. The Rules Committee meets on Tuesday afternoon and floor debate is scheduled for Thursday.

The Senate will be busy, too.   On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee will mark up the Commercial Space Launch Act (S. 1297) and the Seasonal Forecasting Improvement Act (S. 1331).   S. 1297 and H.R. 2262 have similar goals -- to update the existing Commercial Space Launch Act -- but different approaches, and the Senate bill has bipartisan support.  S. 1331 and H. R. 1561 also have similar goals, but different approaches.  One goal is improving how NOAA acquires satellites and encouraging NOAA to use more commercial weather satellite data. 

Congress has a lot of interest in commercial weather data these days. The House SS&T Environment Subcommittee will hold a hearing specifically on that topic on Wednesday morning.   Ah yes, Wednesday morning.  It will take three of you to cover everything or skilled multitasking to watch the webcasts (just about all congressional hearings and markups are webcast on the respective committee's website, except for closed meetings to discuss classified matters, of course).  The House hearing is at 10:00, the CJS bill markup up at 10:30, and the Senate markup also is at 10:30.  (The defense appropriations markup is at 9:30 that day, but is closed.)

Not everything happens in Washington, of course.   The National Space Society's annual International Space Development Conference  (ISDC 2015) will take place in Toronto, Canada, from May 20-24 with a great program of speakers.

Those and other events that we know about as of Sunday afternoon are listed below.

Tuesday, May 19

Wednesday, May 20

Wednesday - Sunday, May 20-24

Thursday, May 21

SASC Completes Markup: Digs in on Replacing RD-180, Not Convinced About DMSP-20

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-May-2015 (Updated: 14-May-2015 08:45 PM)

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) completed markup of its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) today.   Most of the subcommittee markups, including that of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, and full committee markup were closed, so the release of a committee fact sheet and a press conference by chairman John McCain (R-AZ) today provide the first public view of what it contains.  Space programs, especially launch vehicles, warranted considerable attention.

McCain and others on the committee, including Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), have been leaders in Congress to move the Air Force away from using Russia's RD-180 rocket engines.  RD-180s power the United Launch Alliance's (ULA's) Atlas V rocket.  McCain also has been a crucial supporter of SpaceX's determination to compete against ULA for launching national security satellites.  SASC led efforts in last year's NDAA to set a deadline of 2019 for using RD-180s, which the Air Force is seeking to modify so it has more time to build a new American engine, integrate it into a launch vehicle, test and certify it for launching national security satellites.

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) went along with the Air Force request in its version of the FY2016 NDAA, which is being debated by the House right now.  SASC did not follow suit.   Instead, it "revalidates" Section 1608 of last year's NDAA, which sets the deadline, although waivers are allowed under certain circumstances.  The SASC bill "limits the use of Russian rocket engines, allowing for as few as zero but as many as nine," according to the press release.  The bill has other provisions aimed at ending U.S. reliance on Russian engines as soon as possible.

McCain said at the press conference, as he has in other venues, that he does not want American dollars going to "cronies" of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Today he said Putin is "dismembering a country as we speak," referring to Ukraine.  (His comments are at the very end of the press conference).  He also called the issue of the rocket engines and ULA a "classic example of the military-industrial complex" and said that SpaceX has said it can have a replacement for RD-180s by 2017, a probable reference to SpaceX's plans for its Falcon Heavy rocket, which is expected to make its first flight this year, but it would take some time for it to be certified to launch national security satellites (which are very expensive and critically necessary so launch failures are not easily tolerated).

SASC also expressed caution about DOD's plans to launch the last of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites. The Air Force decided last year that it did not need DMSP-20, but changed its mind this year and now wants to launch it.  At an April 29 hearing, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James and Commander of Air Force Space Command Gen. John Hyten said several factors led to their revised decision even though it will cost "millions of dollars": the Europeans have decided not to replace a geostationary weather satellite DOD has been using to support its operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East, it will give the Air Force more time to decide on the future of its weather satellite program, it will provide an additional competitive space launch opportunity, and people within the national security community who deal with weather issues on a day to day basis "very, very much want to see that satellite launched."

SASC was not convinced.   The bill prohibits the use of funds for the DMSP program or for launch of DMSP-20 until the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff certify that "non-material or lower cost solutions are insufficient."

On other matters, SASC  --

  • approves $20 million for the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, "an increase of $13.5 million to match the previous year funding level"
  • requires the President to establish an interagency process to develop a policy to deter adversaries in space
  • requires the Secretary of Defense to designate an individual to be the Principal Space Control Advisor
  • establishes a council to "review and be responsible for" DOD's positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) enterprise (GPS is a PNT system)
  • requires a plan for consolidating acquisition of commercial communication satellite services
  • requires an analysis of alternatives for replacing the Wideband Global Satellite System

SASC Worries About GPS III, DOD Weather Satellites, Space Security

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-May-2015 (Updated: 11-May-2015 07:45 PM)

As members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) get ready to mark up their version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), replacing Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine is only one topic on their minds.  Cost overruns and schedule delays on the next generation of GPS satellites, access to weather satellite data to support DOD needs, and ensuring U.S. satellites can operate in a potentially hostile environment also are concerns.

These issues were debated at a SASC Strategic Forces subcommittee hearing on April 29.   Although RD-180 dominated the discussion, it was not the only topic.

GPS III.  Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management for the Government Accountability Office (GAO) testified that the first of the new generation of GPS positioning, navigation and timing satellites, GPS III, is over two years behind schedule because of technical and manufacturing problems.   Launch of the first satellite has slipped 28 months, from April 2014 to August 2016.

The associated ground system, OCX, which promises anti-jamming capabilities, is four years late because of many issues including a “struggle to incorporate information assurance requirements…system engineering shortcomings, and management and oversight issues.”   Chaplain told committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) that although the Air Force has “put a lot of corrective actions in place,” GAO remains concerned about management, oversight and contractor capabilities.

McCain said the program is $471 million, or 11 percent, over budget and demanded to know who was being held responsible.  Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Deborah Lee James replied the contractor had lost $160 million in fees and “we’re assessing other individuals to see if there’s other levels of accountability.”

DOD Weather Satellites.  DOD is closing in on a strategy for its weather satellite program after several years of analyzing alternatives following the 2010 cancellation of the DOD-NOAA-NASA National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS).  DOD had two of its legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellites in storage at the time so was not in a rush to make a decision.  One of those two, DMSP-19, was launched last year.

The Air Force initially decided that it did not need the other, DMSP-20, but has changed its mind.  Hyten said the FY2016 request includes funds to continue storing and eventually launch it.   One key factor is that DOD has been relying on data from a European geostationary weather satellite, Meteosat 7, for coverage of the Indian Ocean region to support operations in Afghanistan and the Middle East.  That satellite is at the end of its life and the European meteorological satellite organization, EUMETSAT, is not replacing it.  SecAF James told the subcommittee that the Europeans said last year they would replace it, but “reversed themselves,” leaving the Air Force in a quandary.  Eumetsat denies that it changed course and never planned to replace that satellite.

In any case, Hyten and James said that DMSP-20 now is needed to avoid gaps in coverage even though it will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars.”   One alternative – relying on data from Chinese or Russian satellites that cover that region – is unacceptable to Congress and to DOD.

Other factors in DMSP-20’s favor were that it would give DOD more time to make a final decision about its path forward on weather satellites, offer an additional competitive launch opportunity (implying that SpaceX could compete for this launch), and “indeed, the NGA and our own Air Force weather teams very, very much want to see that satellite launched,” James explained.

As for the next generation of DOD weather satellites, Hyten said that James had just approved using Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) principles for its Weather System Follow-on program.  ORS was created to meet tactical needs with small, inexpensive satellites that can be built and launched quickly.  Congress has been strongly supportive of ORS in the past, but will have to approve the decision to use it for the weather satellite program.

Space Security.  Three days before the hearing, CBS’s 60 Minutes program aired a segment featuring Hyten and James discussing the vulnerability of U.S. satellites to potential hostile action by countries like China and Russia.

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) opened the hearing by referencing the program and quoting several other DOD officials who have commented publicly on this issue.  He also noted that Hyten recently briefed the committee “on a number of troubling developments regarding our adversary’s desire to threaten U.S. space capabilities” and went on to say that “Russia and China have militarized space, there is no doubt about it.” Subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-IN) called the 60 Minutes segment a “wake-up call” for the nation.

The discussion during the open part of the hearing was very general, but the committee later moved into a closed session where classified information could be discussed.  In open session, James said that the Air Force has “directed, redirected or increased” planned funding for the next five years to provide $5 billion in classified and unclassified programs for “improving our space security at the enterprise level” and “incorporating security requirements in all of our space capabilities going forward.” Hyten said we must “be prepared to defend ourselves” including increasing mission assurance “by emphasizing resilience, reconstitution and defensive operations across many of our future programs.”

In other venues, the funding has been described as augmenting DOD capabilities to protect U.S. satellites, to deter and defend against hostile attacks, and, if necessary, defeat them.  Doug Loverro, Deputy Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said at a March 25 House Armed Services Committee (HASC) hearing that the United States remains “absolutely committed to assuring the peaceful use of space for all” but “we can no longer view space as a sanctuary” and the additional funds “will make clear to all that attacks in space are not only strategically ill advised but militarily ineffective.”

SASC Markup Begins Tomorrow

SASC's Strategic Forces subcommittee will markup its portion of the NDAA tomorrow and the full committee will deal with it over the following three days.  Those meetings are closed.  Meanwhile, across Capitol Hill, the House Armed Services Committee completed its markup on April 30 and the House is scheduled to debate the bill beginning this Wednesday.

Four House Commercial Space Bills Span Wide Range of Topics

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-May-2015 (Updated: 08-May-2015 11:59 PM)

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will mark up four bills on May 13, 2015 dealing with a broad range of commercial space activities.  Three of the bills have yet to be introduced, but obtained copies.  In total, they span everything from regulating commercial human spaceflight to third party indemnification to property rights for mining asteroids to expanding the role of NOAA's Office of Space Commercialization.

The committee announced the markup and the titles of the bills late this afternoon.  Only one has a bill number because the others are yet to be introduced. The bills are:

  • H. R. ___, the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship Act of 2015 (the SPACE Act)
  • H.R. 1508, the Space Resource Exploration and Utilization Act of 2015
  • H.R. ____, the Commercial Remote Sensing Act of 2015 and
  • H.R. ____, the Office of Space Commerce Act

According to the copies obtained by, the four bills have the following goals:

  • The SPACE Act will be introduced by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents a district including Edwards Air Force Base and the Mojave Air and Space Port, along with House SS&T chairman Rep, Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Space Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS). The broadly-based bill is aimed at updating the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA).  Among its provisions the bill would:
    • extend the so-called "learning period" during which the FAA is prohibited from issuing new regulations for commercial human spaceflight until 2023. That restriction currently expires on September 30 of this year.  It also allows industry to develop voluntary industry standards and requires a report from the Secretary of Transportation in 2021 on industry's progress in that regard and an independent assessment of the readiness of industry and government to transition to a framework that "may include regulations."
    • extend the government's ability to indemnify commercial space launch companies from certain amounts of third party losses through 2023 (the current authority expires in December 2016).
    • require updating the methodology to establish the maximum probable loss used by the FAA to establish requirements for companies to obtain third party liability insurance.
    • add and define "government astronaut" as a type of personnel that may be aboard a commercial human spaceflight mission.
    • require a study by an independent contractor of frameworks for space traffic management.
    • make a "sense of Congress" statement that launch facilities developed, owned or operated by States should take proper measures to "secure their investments and the safety of third parties from potential damages...."   That language probably is in response to the damage caused by the failure of Orbital's Antares rocket at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) facility at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in October 2014.  The MARS facility is owned by the State of Virginia rather than the Federal Government and although Orbital had purchased required insurance under its FAA license (and other insurance for company purposes), Virginia did not buy insurance to cover its potential losses.  Virginia's two Senators led efforts to add $20 million to the FY2015 appropriations bill that funds NASA to cover those losses, but the Obama Administration is reluctant to release those funds.
  • H.R. 1508 was introduced by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) on March 19, 2015 and establishes a legal framework to govern property rights for U.S. companies involved the exploration and utilization of asteroids.  The committee held a hearing on similar legislation last year.
  • The Commercial Remote Sensing Act of 2015 will be sponsored by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to require annual reports from the Secretary of Commerce on its activities related to issuing licenses to commercial remote sensing companies, and a separate report on statutory changes that may be needed to protect national security, protect the U.S. industrial base, and reflect the current state of the art of remote sensing technologies.
  • The Office of Space Commerce Act will be sponsored by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) to rename the Department of Commerce's Office of Space Commercialization as the Office of Space Commerce and amend its responsibilities, especially increasing its role in positioning, navigation and timing satellites (i.e. GPS).

The markup is at 2:00 pm ET on May 13, 2015.


SASC Unhappy With Slow Air Force Progress on RD-180 Replacement

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-May-2015 (Updated: 04-May-2015 11:50 PM)

Key members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) left no doubt at a recent hearing about their dissatisfaction with the Air Force’s slow progress in building a replacement for Russia’s RD-180 rocket engine.

Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James, Air Force Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten, and Government Accountability Office (GAO) expert Cristina Chaplain testified to SASC’s Strategic Forces subcommittee on April 29 about a wide range of military space issues, but space launch dominated the discussion.

Subcommittee chairman Jeff Sessions (R-Alabama) and full committee chairman John McCain (R-Arizona) demanded to know why the Air Force is moving so slowly after Congress authorized and appropriated $220 million for FY2015 to build an American replacement for Russia’s RD-180 engine by 2019.  The RD-180 is used for the United Launch Alliance’s (ULA’s) Atlas V rocket.  Both Senators said the Air Force has spent only $14,000 of that money so far.

James responded that the Air Force has obligated $50 million, of which $37 million is FY2014 money and $13 million is from the FY2015 amounts, and she plans to obligate another $45-50 million in the next six months.   (No explanation was given for the difference in the committee’s figures and those provided by James, though funds are “obligated” once a contract is signed, but not “spent” until the money is transferred to the contractor, so that may be one factor.)

Hyten explained that the launch industry has changed significantly in the past few years thanks to NASA’s decision to use public private partnerships (PPPs) like the one it has with SpaceX to develop new launch capabilities.  He argued that the Air Force needs time to learn how to interact effectively with industry in this new environment.

In 2006, ULA was formed as a joint venture between the two major launch services providers  – Boeing and Lockheed Martin – to ensure a strong industrial base at a time of reduced launch demand.   ULA has been a monopoly launch services provider for most national security launches since then using the Atlas V and Delta IV.  SpaceX wants to break into that market and Congress has embraced the idea of competition as a way to lower launch costs.

DOD and the Air Force apparently have now embraced competition as well.  James went so far as to say that U.S. national security “will be far better off the day that we certify SpaceX” and reiterated that will be done by June.  Last year, DOD promised it would be done by December 2014, but that did not happen. James and others have since made new assurances that it will be accomplished by June.

James and Hyten plan to adopt NASA’s PPP model and have a four-step path that will “result in a commercially competitive domestic launch capability to replace the RD-180.”

  • Step 1:   Technology risk reduction, for which the money being obligated now will be used.
  • Step 2: Invest in rocket propulsion systems with multiple providers “to partner in their ongoing investment in domestic propulsion systems.”   
  • Step 3:  Using the PPP approach, enter into agreements with launch system providers to provide domestically-powered launch capability. 
  • Step 4:   Compete and award contracts “with certified launch providers for launch services during the period 2018-2022.”

The years 2018-2022 would be a period of transition from the RD-180-powered Atlas V to the new systems.

Hyten and James also continued to press their case that they do not want to replace one monopoly with another, with SpaceX replacing ULA in that role.  The argument goes that because ULA recently decided to end production of the smaller version of Delta IV, it now has only Atlas V and the very expensive, larger Delta IV Heavy to offer.   Although the Atlas V can compete with SpaceX, if it cannot be used after 2019, SpaceX would win every competition because the Delta IV costs $400 million per launch.  Hyten and James said they may be able to have a new American engine by 2019, but it will be 2022 before that engine is integrated into a new rocket and certified.  For those intervening years, SpaceX would be a monopoly for national security launches. Thus they want Congress to allow use of the RD-180 until 2022.

Last week, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) approved a FY2016 NDAA that provides more flexibility in the 2019 date.  At the SASC hearing, Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) actually recommended that the Air Force cut itself “some slack” on the date because he did not think it could be ready by 2019 and it would be worse for DOD to come back at that time and say it needed more RD-180s.

Hyten and James also want Congress to clarify that ULA can obtain from Russia all 18 of the RD-180 engines envisioned under the December 2013 block-buy contract with ULA. The Air Force is interpreting the law to mean that only the 5 engines that were paid for – rather than contracted for – prior to February 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, are permissible.   Sessions indicated that obtaining all 18 engines was congressional intent in the FY2015 NDAA.

Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Indiana), the subcommittee’s top Democrat, wanted to know what assurance DOD has that Russia will deliver the RD-180s already under contract.   James replied that Russia has a track record for delivering what it promised, but if not, there is a backup plan.  ULA has a two year inventory of RD-180s.  If no more were delivered, about one-third of the national security satellites could be launched by SpaceX’s Falcon 9, but the other two-thirds would have to be shifted to ULA’s Delta IV, which is “30-50 percent more expensive” than Atlas V “and that’s not in our budget submission right now,” Hyten said.

SASC and its subcommittees will markup their version of the FY2016 NDAA during the week of May 11.  The markups are all closed.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 4-8, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-May-2015 (Updated: 05-May-2015 08:02 AM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 4-8, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session this week.  The House is in recess.

During the Week

With the House in recess and Spring in the air, this is a comparatively light week for space policy aficionados.  There are two interesting conferences in Washington, DC -- WIA's Aerospace 2015 on Tuesday and the Humans 2 Mars Summit on Tuesday and Wednesday -- but for many the highlight probably will be the SpaceX pad abort test on Wednesday at Cape Canaveral, FL.  It is a test, and a very brief one as NASA and SpaceX keep pointing out, of the abort system for the Dragon spacecraft as part of its certification for carrying NASA astronauts.  

At a briefing on May 1, SpaceX's Hans Koenigsman joked that if you wait to hear the sound, the test will be over already.  The test does not involve the use of a Falcon 9 rocket.  Instead, eight Super Draco engines integrated into the Dragon capsule will fire for just six seconds, propelling the capsule to an altitude of about 5,000 feet.  Dragon will then descend under parachutes to a water landing 1.5 minutes after ignition.  The landing point is about 1 mile offshore.  Dragon will be recovered and returned to SpaceX's McGregor, TX facility for analysis.  An instrumented dummy named Buster will be along for the ride to measure g forces and other parameters that an astronaut would experience.   The brief test has a long launch window, 7:00 am - 2:30 pm ET, and Koenigsman urged everyone to be patient -- they will do it when they're ready.

Those and other events we know about as of Saturday are listed below.

Tuesday, May 5

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 5-6

  • Humans 2 Mars Summit (Explore Mars and George Washington University's Space Policy Institute), George Washington University , Washington, DC (location update:  the conference is being held in different locations on the GWU conference depending on the day; check the event's website for more information)

Wednesday, May 6

House To Take Up Defense, Weather, Commercial Space Bills This Month

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-May-2015 (Updated: 02-May-2015 05:26 PM)

In a letter to House Republicans yesterday, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) laid out a packed agenda of national security and "innovation" bills that the House will debate and vote on this month.  The House is in recess this coming week, but will return May 12 for two weeks of work before recessing again for Memorial Day.

McCarthy's list of bills does not include the NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017 that cleared the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on a party line vote on April 30.

Among the "innovation" bills that will be considered during the week of May 18-21 are the Weather Forecasting Improvement Act that was approved by the House SS&T Committee on March 26.  It is not focused on weather satellites per se, but includes a pilot program to encourage the private sector to build and launch commercial systems to provide weather data that NOAA would purchase.   Also on McCarthy's list is a "Commercial Space Bill" that has not yet been introduced.  It is described as facilitating a "pro-growth environment for the developing commercial space industry."  A draft update of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) has been circulating on the Hill for several weeks, but this bill apparently will be broader, dealing with other aspects of commercial space activities.   The other innovation bills are not directly related to space activities.

But first the House will debate the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that was approved by the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) on April 30.  H.R. 1735 includes funding and policy direction for most national security space programs.  For example, iIt would modify the language in last year's NDAA regarding the timeline for replacing Russia's RD-180 rocket engine with an American-built engine.  Existing law requires that to happen by 2019.  The bill would add more flexibility. summarized the space-related provisions on April 23 that were adopted by the Strategic Forces subcommittee, and, on April 30, space-related amendments added during full committee markup.

The NDAA will be debated during the week of May 12-15 along with two other national security bills that are not directly space related.

Those bills will all be debated by the House as a whole this month.  Other legislation may be working its way through committees.  The Commercial Space Act listed by McCarthy is one.  Under regular procedure, it would be introduced, hearings held, followed by subcommittee markup and then full committee markup, but any of those steps (except introduction) can be skipped, especially if the majority is confident it has the votes to pass it.  McCarthy represents the district in California that includes Edwards Air Force Base and the Mojave Air and Space Port.  He introduced the Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining (SOARS) Act in the last Congress.  House SS&T held a hearing in November 2013, but no further action was taken.  It would not be surprising if the substance of that bill is incorporated in the new legislation.

The House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee may also markup its FY2016 bill in May although the committee has not announced its schedule for the month yet.  The committee has approved three of the 12 regular appropriations bills already and two (Military Construction-Veterans Affairs, and Energy and Water ) have passed the House.

HASC Approves FY2016 NDAA

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Apr-2015 (Updated: 30-Apr-2015 11:18 PM)

After 18 hours of debate, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) adopted the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) as amended during its deliberations.  For space programs, little changed from the subcommittee markup last week.

The markup of H.R. 1735 began on time at 10:00 am ET on Wednesday and ended at 4:39 am ET today (per Politico).  The only lengthy break was to hear Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's address to a joint session of Congress Wednesday morning.

Among the dozens of amendments debated, only a few affected space programs.  Three "sense of Congress" amendments were adopted as part of an en bloc package (Rogers 2) submitted by Strategic Forces chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL).  Sense of Congress statements basically assert how Congress feels about an issue, but do not require action. Two were offered by Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO) and one by Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) saying it is the sense of Congress that --

  • as outlined in the 2010 National Space Policy, the United States should help assure the use of space for all responsible parties and deter others from interference and attack, defend U.S. and allied systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them (Lamborn);
  • a robust multi-mission space sensor network will be vital to ensuring a strong missile defense system (Lamborn); and
  • the Secretary of Defense should evaluate options for using current DOD assets for the purpose of rapid reconstitution of critical space-based warfighter enabling capabilities (Bishop).

Separately, Rep. Trent Franks  (R-AZ) offered an amendment (207r1) directing the Missile Defense Agency to "commence the concept definition, design, research, development, and engineering evaluation of a space-based ballistic missile intercept and defeat layer to the ballistic missile defense system."  The amendment has a list of specifications and requires a report to Congress one year after enactment of the law with an interim briefing by March 31, 2016.  The amendment was adopted 35-27.

At the very end of the markup, another en bloc amendment (Full Committee En Bloc #5) was adopted that included one sponsored by Rep. Steve Knight (R-CA).  The amendment (159r2) modifies section 1606 on acquisition strategy for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program by adding more requirements to ensure full and open competition.

A webcast of the markup and all the amendments and their disposition are on the committee's website, which has a special section specifically for the NDAA.

Apart from those minor changes, the bill that cleared the committee this morning is the same as what emerged from subcommittee markup last week regarding space programs.

What's Happening in Space Policy April 26-May 2, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Apr-2015 (Updated: 26-Apr-2015 11:59 AM)

This week's space policy related events begin today (Sunday) with many more coming up for the week of April 26-May 2, 2015. The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

It's another busy week in the space policy business that begins today and runs all the way through Saturday.

Tonight (Sunday), the CBS 60 Minutes program will air a segment on Air Force Space Command and threats posed to U.S. satellites.  In a preview on the CBS website, Gen. Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, is asked if we will defend our satellites by force if necessary and he replies "That's why we have a military.  I'm not NASA."

Hyten will have a different kind of appearance later in the week (Wednesday) when he and Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James testify to the Senate Armed Services Committee's Strategic Forces subcommittee about the FY2016 budget request for military space programs.  They will be joined by GAO's Cristina Chaplain.  That same day the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) will be marking up its version of the FY2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), including recommendations on the military space program that were adopted by the HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee last week.  Full committee markup is typically a lengthy affair with many amendments debated.  Check back here for a recap of any related to the space program.  

Speaking of NASA, Dava Newman's nomination to be NASA Deputy Administrator is scheduled for debate and (hopefully) passage by the Senate on Monday beginning at 5:00 pm ET.  The agreement between the parties is for 30 minutes of debate divided equally, so if all time is used, the vote would be at 5:30 pm ET.  Later in the week (Thursday) and across the Hill, the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) committee will markup a new NASA authorization bill.  This one (no bill number yet) covers 2016 and 2017.  The House already passed a bill for 2015, so together they would provide a three-year authorization for the agency.  The Senate has not acted on a new NASA authorization bill, but indications are that they plan to do so, although the timing is not clear.  NASA's most recent authorization act covered only through FY2013.

Meanwhile, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation will learn how its FY2016 budget request fares in the House Appropriations subcommittee that provides its funding.  The Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) subcommittee markup is on Wednesday morning.

Many more events are on tap, including one that is just plain fun.  If you're in the Washington, DC area on Saturday, you and your family can enjoy Space Day at the National Air and Space Museum downtown.  This year it commemorates 50 years of spacewalks.  Astronauts will be on hand to give talks and there are kid-friendly activities planned.

All the events we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Sunday, April 26

Monday, April 27

Monday-Friday, April 27 - May 1

Tuesday-Thursday, April 28-30

Wednesday, April 29

Thursday, April 30

Thursday-Saturday, April 30 - May 2

Friday, May 1

Saturday, May 2