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What's Happening in Space Policy March 27-31, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Mar-2017 (Updated: 26-Mar-2017 12:57 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 27-31, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.   The House and Senate will be in session.

During the Week

Before we get started on what's coming up, in case you missed it, yesterday President Trump used his Weekly Address to talk about NASA.  He signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act into law earlier in the week and the roughly 5 minute video continues the theme of expressing his admiration for NASA while sharing no information on his plans for the agency.  Apollo, Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) are featured. JWST is, in fact, the only future program mentioned even though the President says "the future belongs to us."  He is speaking generically at that point, though, not about the space program specifically.  Nothing about the International Station Station even though there's footage from the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project.  A space shuttle launch is shown, but nothing about SLS or any other launch vehicles.  The only science other than astrophysics that makes it into the video requires the viewer to be sufficiently in-the-know to recognize the JPL jubilation at Curiosity's successful landing on Mars.  Still, Presidents don't often talk about the space program in their Weekly Addresses or anywhere else, so it's worth a look. This was done the day after the Republican Obamacare repeal effort failed, so perhaps he was looking for some good news to convey.  He says at the end that "if Americans can achieve these things, there is no problem we cannot solve."

Onward.  This coming week is another space policy extravaganza.   Starting with national security space, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will hold a hearing on the nomination of former Rep. Heather Wilson to be Secretary of the Air Force.  Trump announced her nomination back in January, but it has taken this long for all the paperwork to get to the committee. None of the service secretaries are in place right now.  The nominees for Secretary of the Army and Secretary of the Navy withdrew because they could not disentangle themselves from their business interests.  Wilson's hearing is Thursday morning.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, a HASC subcommittee will hold a joint hearing with a House Homeland Security subcommittee on "Threats to Space Assets and Implications for Homeland Security," certainly an interesting topic.  Witnesses are the former commandant of the Coast Guard (Adm. Thad Allen), the former deputy administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Joseph Nimmich), and the former commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command (Gen. William Shelton).  That's on Wednesday afternoon.  Allen is on the GPS Advisory Board, so that surely will be one of the topics.  GPS -- where would we all be without it?

On the civil space side, this is Space Science Week at the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  All five of the standing committees that deal with space meet individually and jointly Tuesday-Thursday and there is a public lecture on Wednesday evening.   At the public lecture, JPL's Kevin Hand will talk about the Search for Life in Oceans Beyond Earth.  The lecture and the other Space Science Week events will take place at the National Academy of Sciences building on Constitution Avenue (not at the Keck Center on 5th Street).

Space law is on the docket this week, too. The Legal Subcommittee of the U.N. Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space begins its annual two-week meeting in Vienna, Austria.  The first day features a space law symposium sponsored by the International Institute of Space Law (IISL) and the European Centre for Space Law (ECSL).  Closer to home, Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) is holding an afternoon symposium on Thursday to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.   Henry Hetrzfeld (GWU), Steve Mirmina (NASA), Pamela Meredith (American Univ.), Ray Bender (independent arbitrator and mediator), Courtney Bailey (NASA) and Pete Hays (DOD PDSA staff) are the speakers.  SAIS doesn't often weigh in on space law or space policy issues.  Space law does seem to be in vogue these days, spurred by the anniversary and the innovative ideas commercial companies are espousing for space exploration and utilization and associated legal issues.

The NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meets, more briefly than usual, on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.  Two of its committees meet earlier in the week, including Human Exploration and Operations (HEO).  NAC advises the NASA Administrator and a new Administrator has not yet been nominated.  Robert Lightfoot is Acting Administrator.  Gen. Lester Lyles (USAF, Ret.) is the new Chair of NAC, succeeding Ken Bowersox, who served as Acting Chair after Steve Squyres stepped down last April.  Bowersox remains on NAC and resumes his position as chair of the HEO committee.  Lyles was an ex officio member of NAC for many years because he chaired the National Academies Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB).  He completed his two terms as ASEB chair last year and now will continue advising NASA in this new capacity.  Public sessions of the NAC meetings are useful for catching up on NASA programs and the issues NASA managers are facing.  Anyone can listen in by telecon and watch via WebEx.  

We'll stop there because this is getting so long, but there are MANY other really interesting meetings on tap this week.

All the 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.  In particular we are awaiting word on when the OA-7 cargo mission to the International Space Station will launch.  The launch, on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V from Cape Canaveral, has been delayed three times due to technical problems with one thing or another.  When a new launch date is announced, we'll post it.

Monday, March 27

Monday, March 27 - Friday, April 7

Tuesday, March 28

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 28-29

Tuesday-Thursday, March 28-30

Wednesday, March 29

Wednesday-Friday, March 29-31

Thursday, March 30

Thursday-Friday, March 30-31

Trump Signs NASA Bill, Pence Says Space Council Imminent

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Mar-2017 (Updated: 21-Mar-2017 09:10 PM)

President Donald Trump signed the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act into law today.  During an Oval Office signing ceremony, Vice President Mike Pence said that Trump will soon reactivate a White House National Space Council and has asked him to lead it.

The signing ceremony included about a dozen members of Congress who worked on the bill (S. 442) as well as NASA officials, including Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot and astronauts. Among the members were Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX), Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Representatives John Culberson (R-TX), Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), Lamar Smith (R-TX), Brian Babin (R-TX), Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), Bill Posey (R-FL), Steven Palazzo (R-MS), and Mo Brooks (R-AL).


President Donald Trump signs the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act into law during an Oval Office ceremony, March 21, 2017.  Snip from White House video posted on NASA YouTube channel.

NASA astronaut Chris Cassidy, chief of the astronaut office, presented the President with an astronaut flight jacket.

In his formal statement, Trump summarized key provisions of the legislation, particularly praising the jobs it will create and its reaffirmation of support for NASA's "core missions" -- "human space exploration, space science, and technology."  He did not mention earth science.  Later he said the United States would remain a leader in aviation.

He invited others to speak after he signed it and Culberson remarked that just as President Eisenhower is remembered as the President who created the interstate highway system, he (Trump) would be remembered as creating the interplanetary highway system. 

Trump replied:  "Well that sounds exciting.  First we want to fix our highways. We have to fix our highways."

That is reminiscent of what he said during the campaign. When asked about his views on space, he said he loves what NASA represents, but "we need to fix the potholes first."

Thus, his comments today did not shed much light on what he plans to do with NASA.  His budget blueprint suggests the status quo, at least for now.  He may be waiting for input from a White House National Space Council that Vice President Pence today said would be established soon.

At the end of the ceremony, Pence said that "in very short order the President will be taking action to relaunch the National Space Council.  He's asked me to chair that as Vice Presidents have done in the past and we're going to be bringing together the best and the brightest in NASA and also in the private sector.  We have elected a builder for President and as he said America once again needs to start building and leading to the stars."

This is the first NASA authorization bill since 2010.  It sets policy and recommends funding levels for FY2017, which is already underway.  It does not provide any funding to NASA, however; only appropriations bills do that.  Congress is still considering the FY2017 appropriations bills.  NASA and other government agencies are funded right now by a Continuing Resolution basically at their FY2016 levels until April 28.  Congress must pass some other appropriations measure(s) by then to keep the government operating.

A National Aeronautics and Space Council was created in the 1958 NASA Act, but President Richard Nixon abolished it in 1973.  Congress reestablished a National Space Council (without the aeronautics component) in the FY1989 NASA Authorization Act and President George H.W. Bush implemented it by Executive Order in 1989.  It was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle.  The National Space Council (usually abbreviated NSpC to distinguish its initials from the National Security Council) still exists in law, but has not been funded or staffed since the end of that Administration.   Space policy has been overseen in the White House by the National Security Council (national security) and Office of Science and Technology Policy (civil and commercial) since then.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 19-24, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Mar-2017 (Updated: 19-Mar-2017 03:41 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 19-24, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

It's another one of those super-busy weeks, especially Wednesday.  Lots of action is in store inside Washington, outside Washington, and in Earth orbit.

Two are happening today (Sunday).  First is a Town Hall meeting at the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LSPC) near Houston that is discussing the Science Definition Team report on a Europa lander, a topic expected to be of congressional interest during debate on the FY2018 budget request. President Trump's budget blueprint specifically says it does NOT fund the lander, only the orbiter/flyby Europa Clipper. Second is the return to Earth of SpaceX's CRS-10 Dragon spacecraft.  It took about 5,500 pounds of cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) last month and is returning 5,400 pounds of results from scientific experiments and other items needed back on Earth.  Dragon is the only one of the four cargo spacecraft that service ISS that was designed to survive reentry (since SpaceX designed it from the beginning to support crews).

Dragon's return is just one part of a busy time on the ISS.  Another cargo mission, Orbital ATK's OA-7, is scheduled for launch on either Thursday or Friday (the exact date is TBD depending on availability of the Eastern Test Range from which the launch will take place aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V).  At the same time, astronauts on the U.S. segment of the ISS are gearing up for a series of three spacewalks.  The first is on Friday.  NASA will hold a news conference on Wednesday at Johnson Space Center to explain what they will be doing.  NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Peggy Whitson and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet will all take part in the spacewalks.  The other two are on April 2 and April 7.

The Europa lander Town Hall mentioned above is just the start of the week-long LPSC conference at The Woodlands, just outside Houston.  LPSC is the premier conference where planetary scientists gather to present the results of their research and talk about upcoming missions.  Unfortunately, it looks like there are no webcasts, so one must be there in person to hear about all the new findings and discoveries.  [There is a notice on the conference's website warning that no live streaming of presentations is permitted.]  NASA headquarters representatives will hold their own Town Hall meeting on Monday and NASA's Venus Exploration Analysis Group's (VEXAG's) Town Hall is on Thursday.

Back in Washington, brevity requires picking just two events to highlight, both among those taking place on Wednesday.  First, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Prague Security Studies Institute (PSSI) will hold a day-long symposium on "Space Security:  Issues for the New Administration."  It has a terrific lineup of speakers from CSIS, PSSI, the U.S. military, Congress, academia (U.S. and Japan), the Japanese and French governments, the European Space Agency, industry, non-profits and FFRDCs. The four main topics are space crisis dynamics, cooperation in space and missile defense, future of space launch, and space situational awareness and space traffic management.   Luckily, this event WILL be livestreamed so people everywhere can benefit. 

Second, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis gets his first chance in his new position to publicly brief the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee on the state of U.S. military readiness and DOD's budget requirements.   Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC) will also testify.  Not sure how much, if any, of the discussion will be about space activities, but it's a great way to get the lay of the land from their perspectives. The committee typically webcasts its hearings on its website.

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

Sunday, March 19

Monday, March 20

Monday-Friday, March 20-24

Tuesday, March 21

Wednesday, March 22

Thursday, March 23

  • VEXAG Town Hall meeting at LPSC, The Woodlands, TX, "lunchtime"
  • Two OA-7 Pre-Launch Briefings, Kennedy Space Center, FL, 1:00 pm ET (What's on Board) and 4:00 pm ET (Mission Status), broadcast on NASA TV (could take place a day earlier if the launch date moves up a day)
  • [The OA-7 launch could take place today, but is currently scheduled for tomorrow]

Friday, March 24

  • ISS Spacewalk (1st of 3, Kimbrough and Pesquet), Earth orbit, 7:00 am ET (NASA TV coverage begins 6:30 am ET)
  • Launch of Orbital ATK OA-7 Cargo Mission to ISS, Cape Canaveral, FL, 9:00 pm ET (launch could move forward one day to March 23)  NASA TV launch coverage begins 8:00 pm ET, post-launch coverage begins at 10:30 pm ET

SpacePolicyOnline.com Posts Free Fact Sheets on NASA and NOAA FY2018 Budget Requests

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Mar-2017 (Updated: 18-Mar-2017 05:08 PM)

SpacePolicyOnline.com has posted new fact sheets on the FY2018 budget requests for NASA and for NOAA's satellite programs.   They can be downloaded for free from the left menu of our home page under "Our Fact Sheets and Reports."  The fact sheets are updated as needed as the requests work their way through Congress.

In case you missed it, we also have a new fact sheet that tracks major space-related legislation in the 115th Congress.

The current versions of all three fact sheets are as follows:

Should Commercial Space Activities be Permissionless?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 14-Mar-2017 (Updated: 14-Mar-2017 02:20 AM)

Witnesses at a House subcommittee hearing last week debated how – and whether – the U.S. government should regulate commercial space activities to ensure compliance with the 1967 Outer Space Treaty while not stifling innovation.  No consensus emerged other than if there is governmental regulation, it should have a light touch.

Today, the only commercial space activities that are regulated are launch and reentry (FAA), use of the electromagnetic spectrum (FCC), and remote sensing satellites (NOAA).  With the emergence of ideas for private sector activities ranging from satellite servicing to mining asteroids, the issue of the government’s role in overseeing what companies do in space has taken on new urgency.

Section 108 of the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) required a report from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) on possible approaches to dealing with the issue while ensuring U.S. compliance with Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty.  Article VI requires governments to authorize and continually supervise activities of their non-government entities, like companies.

In an April 2016 report, OSTP recommended that the Department of Transportation be assigned responsibility for granting “mission authorizations” for commercial space activities not already under the jurisdiction of another agency.  DOT is the parent of FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), which currently regulates commercial launch and reentry.

Through much of last year, a consensus appeared to be developing among the commercial space sector – through FAA/AST’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) – and the government (FAA, the State Department, and the Obama White House) that issuing such mission authorizations would be the solution.  FAA/AST would review a proposed activity, authorize it (or not) after consulting with other agencies as appropriate, and conduct periodic evaluations to demonstrate continuing supervision.

In October, however, Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), chair of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee laid out an alternative viewpoint that essentially said the private sector should be able to do whatever it wants unless the government can demonstrate the need to restrict it.  The burden would be on the government, not the private sector.

Babin said he would hold a hearing on these issues and did so on March 8.

The five witnesses were Laura Montgomery, a former FAA attorney (and head of its Space Law Branch) now in private practice; Eli Dourado, Director of the Technology Policy Program at George Mason University’s Mercatus Center; Doug Loverro, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy; Dennis Burnett, University of Nebraska-Lincoln adjunct professor of law; and Henry Hogue, Specialist in American National Government, Congressional Research Service.

The discussion focused less on long-term potential commercial space activities like asteroid mining and more on near-term issues in Earth orbit, especially concern about collisions creating space debris.  The fundamental debate, however, was over what the U.S. government must do to comply with Article VI of the OST.

Montgomery’s position is that because the OST is not self-executing, Article VI only comes into play if Congress passes legislation to implement it. Otherwise, non-governmental entities may do whatever they wish without regulation. Although Article VI states that governments must authorize and continually supervise non-government entities, it does not say how to do that or what activities are covered, she said.  It is up to each Treaty signatory to make those decisions.

She believes there is a widespread “misunderstanding” that the Treaty forbids private sector activities that are not authorized by a government.  Instead, she says, the Treaty does not prohibit private sector operators from conducting activities in space, does not say either that all activities or any particular activity must be authorized, and because the Treaty is not self-executing, does not create any obligation on the private sector unless and until Congress says it does. She did not argue against all regulations, only that they should not be established for the wrong reason – a misunderstanding of the Treaty.  Her solution is for Congress to prohibit any regulatory agency from denying a U.S. entity the ability to operate in outer space “solely on the basis of Article VI.”

Dourado’s expertise is in technology policy and telecommunications.  He likened new space activities to the development of the Internet, which benefited from “permissionless” innovation as described in a book by his colleague Adam Thierer.   The Internet evolved in a regime where there was "little prior restraint" on what business activities could be conducted and if "harms or failures occurred" they were addressed "in an ex post manner."  While acknowledging that the “freedom to experiment will result in some mistakes and failures,” in the long run “faster progress and more robust solutions” will result.   He advocated the same approach for space activities, with a “blanket authorization for all non-governmental operations in space that do not cause tangible harm to other parties.”

Tangible harm from space debris was Loverro’s focus.  He argued that some regulation is necessary if not because of the Treaty, but “for the good of America and for the good of American business and for the good of American national security.”  Citing the potential damage that could be caused by a cubesat colliding with a U.S. national security satellite or a foreign satellite, he insisted that a “laissez-faire approach to spaceflight safety has serious and non-quantifiable impacts that extend” beyond the investor, scientist or high school student that owns the cubesat.

The United States should take the lead internationally in setting the rules for conducting new commercial space activities as it did with orbital debris guidelines that were adopted by the United Nations Committee on Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS), Loverro said.   “NASA developed a set of standards, guidelines on orbital debris, that we then took to COPUOS and convinced the rest of the world [to] follow.  That’s good for the U.S. and we should do it again here.” He expanded on that later in the hearing: “[T]he last thing I would like to see happen is for other nations to develop rules that we then become forced to follow. That is not good for our industry.  We need to lead. We need to develop rules that are right for the U.S., and then we need to convince the rest of the world that those rules are the ones they should follow.”

Burnett disagreed with Montgomery’s interpretation of Article IV.  He concluded that the Treaty “requires a minimum of some type of authorization and supervision.” He stressed that “minimum” is the key and cited the commercial remote sensing satellite regulatory process as a “cautionary lesson” to be avoided.

One of the criticisms of OSTP’s proposed mission authorization approach is that it requires use of an interagency process before approval can be granted, just as NOAA must do when considering applications for commercial remote sensing satellites.   NOAA’s process is strongly criticized because of its lack of transparency and time limits.  Although by law NOAA must make a decision on an application within 120 days, there are no time limits for the interagency process, tying NOAA's hands.  Restrictions on commercial remote sensing satellites are largely related to national security and the national security sector can simply decline indefinitely to act without explanation.

As Burnett said, “some of the decision criteria … are black boxes… The applicant must prove a negative, which is a logical impossibility.”   He recommended that Congress pass legislation establishing a clear list of objective decision criteria and a process through which the private sector can get “authorization at the speed of business.”

Other regulatory models exist.  Hogue described four alternatives to traditional government regulation: government corporations, nongovernmental standard setting, federally chartered organizations, and self-regulatory organizations.

One driver in the debate is that some of the private companies insist that potential investors want regulatory certainty before committing funds. Babin noted that “wanting certainty and wanting regulation are two different things” and asked Montgomery how those concerns could be ameliorated.  She said the uncertainty stems from the misunderstanding that Article VI prohibits private sector space activities and cited space tourism as an example of a commercial space activity currently taking place without regulation.

Several companies are planning to launch tourists – or spaceflight participants – on suborbital or orbital missions, but none have done so yet.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) pointed out that the only paying customers who have flown into space have done so on Russian government Soyuz rockets and spacecraft, “which puts it at a different level.” Montgomery agreed with his characterization of different levels of commercial space activities and there could be cases where “something is important or scary enough to be regulated.”  She also agreed that regulation could be needed if there are safety concerns, but not because of Article VI.

Bridenstine, who has been a leader in Congress on these issues for the past two years, made a case in favor of an interagency review process for some activities such as satellite servicing, which has national security implications since some countries might view it as potentially interfering with their assets.  He also argued in favor of Congress passing a law to create a permanent regulatory regime, whatever the specifics, so that it is not subject to change when new presidents take office.

Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, said that the goal should be to provide guidance.  Regulations “are not inherently good or inherently bad,” but provide guidance and clarity so companies understand the rules of the road.

Bera also said “we don’t want to stifle … creativity and innovation” and that is one of the few points on which everyone seemed to agree.

What's Happening in Space Policy March 13-17, 2017 - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 12-Mar-2017 (Updated: 12-Mar-2017 12:29 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 13-17, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session (the Senate for only the first half of the week).

During the Week

After last week's meeting extravaganza (stay tuned for more SpacePolicyOnline.com stories), this week is a welcome respite.  As of this morning (Sunday), at least, we are not aware of any space-related congressional hearings or major space conferences in the United States. [UPDATE: We forgot to mention that the White House is expected to release its FY2018 Budget Blueprint on Thursday.  We do not have a time or place for that, though.  We'll add it to our "Events of Interest" list when we do.]

There are two especially interesting seminars, though, both in Washington, DC.  First, a word of warning to anyone in DC or planning to come here.  Mother Nature decided to save the winter weather till now and there is a storm that could bring a significant snowfall Monday night into Tuesday.  The forecasters are hedging their bets -- this area is notoriously tough to forecast because the rain/snow line often goes right through here so it's hard to know which we'll get until the last minute -- but even a small amount of snow (or worse, ice) could snarl things.  If you plan on attending any events in DC early this week, check first to make certain they are taking place.

That said, on Tuesday, the National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) and the University of Arizona are holding an afternoon discussion on "Congested, Contested, and Competitive: The Future of Security and Commerce in Space."  Among the speakers are Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), DOD space policy advisor Josef Koller, FAA/AST Associate Administrator George Nield, and Lockheed Martin's Robie Samanta Roy. That's at the Army & Navy Club on 17th Street, NW (not to be confused with the Army Navy Country Club across the river in Arlington, VA where NDIA is holding a breakfast meeting featuring Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein on Thursday). 

On Wednesday, the Satellite Industry Association (SIA) is holding a lunchtime meeting on Capitol Hill (2325 Rayburn) on "Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Reform: How Changes Can Enable Growth in the U.S. Commercial Satellite Industry."  Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX) and Rep. Ami Bera (D-CA), the chairman and top Democrat, respectively, on the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, will speak along with representatives of Planet and DigitalGlobe.  Be sure to RSVP in advance (light refreshments will be served). 

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, March 13

Monday-Tuesday, March 13-14

Tuesday, March 14

Tuesday-Wednesday, March 14-15

Wednesday, March 15

Thursday, March 16

House Passes NASA Transition Authorization Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Mar-2017 (Updated: 07-Mar-2017 08:59 PM)

The House passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 by voice vote this evening, clearing the measure for the President.  The bill sets policy for NASA and recommends funding for FY2017, but does not actually provide any money.

The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate by unanimous consent on February 17.  It passed the House today by voice vote.  House consideration of the bill was delayed a week.  No explanation of the delay was offered today and no changes to the bill were made.  The bill now goes to the President for signature.  The White House has not publicly indicated whether he will sign it or not, but the fact that it passed Congress so easily with bipartisanship support is encouraging.

Human spaceflight is a major focus of the bill, although it also addresses NASA's space science, space technology and aeronautics programs.  It is silent on earth sciences, a topic of partisan discord.  Many Republicans argue that NASA should focus on space exploration while other agencies conduct earth science research.  Many Democrats insist that only NASA launches earth science research satellites that are essential for understanding the only planet in the solar system that supports human life.  During the debate on the House floor today, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, rued the fact that the bill did not address earth science, while Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, pressed the argument that NASA should focus on exploration.

The 146-page bill's overall purpose is to codify congressional intent regarding NASA's future during a time of transition from one presidential administration to another.  Stability is the watchword.   SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's FY2017 budget request summarizes the bill.  Among its key provisions are the following.

  • offers a Sense of Congress that the International Space Station (ISS) should continue until at least 2024 and perhaps until 2028;
  • indemnifies launch and reentry service providers from third party claims, with conditions, for launches that are unusually hazardous or nuclear in nature;
  • requires NASA to submit to Congress a "human exploration roadmap" to "expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and beyond" in a steppingstone manner, and requires a study on a human mission to Mars to be launched in 2033 (it does not specify if it is to orbit or land);
  • directs the NASA Administrator to submit a report on how the Orion spacecraft can be used to fulfill a provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to serve as a backup to commercial crew to take crews to and from the ISS, including on launch vehicles other than the Space Launch System (SLS);
  • supports the SLS and Orion programs;
  • states that Congress is not convinced that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission is worth the benefits and asks for an analysis of alternatives to demonstrate technologies and capabilities needed for human exploration of Mars;
  • allows NASA to provide health care to former astronauts and government payload specialists for conditions resulting from their spaceflights;
  • reaffirms congressional intent that NASA have a balanced and adequately funded science portfolio including small, medium and large space missions, suborbital missions, research and analysis grants, and technology development, with science priorities guided by the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine;
  • specifically supports the Mars 2020 rover, a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope, and prohibits NASA from cancelling the airborne SOFIA infrared telescope;
  • adds a 10th item to the list of objectives in NASA's organic act -- "the search for life's origins, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe";
  • requires reports from the NASA Administrator on public-private partnerships to study astrobiology and Near Earth Objects;
  • allows NASA to conduct Senior Reviews of its science missions on a triennial rather than biennial basis;
  • expresses support for a robust aeronautics programs; and
  • establishes as policy that NASA develop technologies to support NASA's core missions.

Lightfoot: NASA Budget Still in Formulation, "Confident" of Administration Support

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 07-Mar-2017 (Updated: 07-Mar-2017 05:41 PM)

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot told employees today that the NASA budget is still in the formulation phase and he remains "confident" in the Trump Administration's support for the agency.

In a memo entitled "Update on Budget Process," Lightfoot explained that the process for formulating the FY2018 budget request to Congress is later than usual because of the presidential transition, but the timing is "not unusual during a transition year."  The deliberations are "not yet at a point" where sufficient details can be shared other than what is already known publicly -- the President plans to increase defense spending by $54 billion and decrease it for non-defense spending by the same amount.  NASA is part of non-defense spending.

"While the final numbers for the agency and its programs are going through this give and take process, we remain confident in the Administration [sic] support for NASA," he writes.

The White House is expected to release its "budget blueprint" publicly on March 16 that will provide top-level numbers for NASA and other government agencies, but the detailed requests are not anticipated until May.

Last week, the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) sent government agencies memos stating what it is currently planning to request for their activities.  Although the information is supposed to remain confidential, details are leaking out.  NOAA's budget is due for a 17 percent cut, for example, and multiple news sources published reports today that the Trump Administration plans deep cuts to the Coast Guard, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), all part of the Department of Homeland Security, in order to fund the construction of the border wall. Significant proposed cuts to the State Department, foreign aid, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) also have made the news.

Congressman Mo Brooks (R-Alabama) was quoted by AL.com as telling constituents yesterday that the non-defense spending cuts "may include NASA and you need to be mindful of that."  Brooks is a member of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and vice-chair of its Space Subcommittee.  His district includes NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA is currently funded by a FY2017 Continuing Resolution (CR) at basically its FY2016 funding level of $19.285 billion.  Congress has not completed action on the FY2017 budget request from the Obama Administration, which was $18.262 billion in appropriated funds (see SpacePolicyOnline.com's fact sheet on NASA's budget for an explanation of the FY2017 request, which was convoluted.) The House and Senate Appropriations Committees were poised to provide much more than that request, providing slightly more than FY2016 before time ran out on the 114th Congress. The CR expires on April 28 and Congress must pass new appropriations to keep NASA (and other agencies) operating past that point.

The House is expected to pass a FY2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act today, clearing it for the President. That bill does not provide any funding for NASA, however.  It is an authorization bill that sets policy and recommends funding levels, but only appropriations committees have money to spend.  (Not clear on the difference between appropriations and authorizations?  See SpacePolicyOnline.con's "What's a Markup" fact sheet.)

Whatever the President's request turns out to be, it is just that, a request.  Under the Constitution, Congress has the "power of the purse."  Only Congress decides how much money the government will spend and on what. 

As Lightfoot points out in his memo: "we have a long ways to go in the budget process."

What's Happening in Space Policy March 6-10, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Mar-2017 (Updated: 05-Mar-2017 04:35 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of March 6-10, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session.

During the Week

Hang onto your hats!  It's going to be quite a week.  From two overlapping conferences (Satellite 2017 and the AAS Goddard Memorial Symposium) in Washington to the first meeting of a new National Academies committee on planetary protection policy to scheduled House floor action on two important pieces of legislation to the annual "Space Prom" and many other events in between, we'll barely have time to catch our breaths.

Starting on Capitol Hill, the House has scheduled floor action -- again -- on the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 (S. 442).  At this point last Sunday, it was included on the House Majority Leader's list of legislation to be considered under suspension of the rules the next day.  Later, however, it was pulled from the list. There are varying viewpoints on why.  It is back on the list now for a vote on Tuesday.  We're not going to say it "will" come up for a vote, only that it is on the schedule at the moment.

The FY2017 defense appropriations bill is also on the floor schedule for debate to begin on Wednesday "subject to a rule being granted."  That one will be debated under regular order, which requires a rule delineating what amendments are in order and how much time is allocated for debate, for example.  The House Rules Committee is scheduled to meet Tuesday at 5:00 pm ET to write that rule.  Defense appropriations is one of the 12 regular appropriations bills Congress is supposed to pass each year.  None of the 12 cleared Congress last year.  Government agencies are operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) basically at their FY2016 levels until April 28.  Congress must pass new legislation before then to keep them operating.  The defense bill is the first one out of the gate. The House passed a different FY2017 defense appropriations bill last year.  This new one (H.R. 1301) reflects agreement with the Senate and the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which did become law.  One space program singled out in the House Appropriations Committee's summary of the bill is that it includes funding for GPS III operational control and space segments.

Also on the Hill and also on Wednesday, the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Space Subcommittee has a hearing scheduled on "Regulating Space: Innovation, Liberty, and International Obligations."   Regulatory matters may not be everyone's cup of tea, but this hearing has a REALLY interesting set of witnesses who will lend their expertise to issues that could have a profound effect on how the private sector engages in new non-traditional activities in Earth orbit and beyond.  It's at 10:00 am ET.  The committee webcasts its hearings. 

Fortunately the committee archives the webcasts for people who can't be in multiple places at once, which is how Wednesday is shaping up.  The Satellite 2017 conference will be in full swing (it begins Monday) at the Washington Convention Center and the American Astronautical Society's Goddard Memorial Symposium will be starting at the Greenbelt Marriott in Greenbelt, MD, just outside the Beltway. 

Your SpacePolicyOnline.com editor will be at the AAS Goddard Symposium on Wednesday moderating a panel discussion in the afternoon on "The Political Environment" with a terrific panel:  Frank Morring of Aviation Week; Chris Shank, now at DOD, but who headed the NASA transition team for the Trump Administration; Tom Hammond from the House SS&T Space Subcommittee; and Nick Cummings from the Senate Commerce Committee.   Others who will be speaking at the two-day conference include NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, AURA President Matt Mountain, and, at various points in the program, the NASA Associate Administrators heading the three mission directorates most involved in space (Bill Gerstenmaier, Thomas Zurbuchen, and Steve Jurczyk) and Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen.  AAS hasn't posted a link for a webcast of the conference, though it has livestreamed the annual conference in the past.  If we learn of one, we'll add it to the entry on our Events of Interest calendar.

Also on Wednesday a new National Academies study committee on Planetary Protection Policy Development Processes will continue its meeting, which begins Tuesday.  Some sessions are closed, but those that are open will be available by WebEx and telecon. The committee is assessing how planetary protection policy is developed domestically and internationally and whether it is responsive to, among other things, "the exploration interests of state and non-state actors."  Non-state actors include private companies, like SpaceX with its Red Dragon plans to land spacecraft on Mars.

And still on Wednesday, a symposium on "Will Collaboration or Competition Get Humans to Mars and Beyond" with a fascinating set of speakers -- established voices and completely new ones -- hosted by a group called Future Tense, which itself is a collaboration of Slate, New America and Arizona State University.  A little later, Defense One and Next Gov will hold a "cocktails and conversation" event on "Space and Satellites in the New Administration."  Both sound really interesting.  Their websites don't indicate if they will be webcast, but, if they are, hopefully they'll be archived so those of us who don't have clones can catch up later.

There are many other events (see the list below) that we can't highlight here or this would go on and on and on.  The week at last comes to a close with the National Space Club's annual Goddard Memorial Dinner -- or the Space Prom as it is affectionately known -- as usual at the Hilton Washington. There'll be a lot to talk about.

As a heads up, though we'll need a lot of rest after a week like that, unfortunately the United States returns to Daylight Saving Time next Sunday (March 12) so we'll lose an hour of sleep.

Those and other events we know about as of this 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-Tuesday, March 6-7

Monday-Wednesday, March 6-8

Monday-Thursday, March 6-9

  • Satellite 2017, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC

Tuesday, March 7

Tuesday-Thursday, March 7-9

Wednesday, March 8

Thursday, March 9

Friday, March 10

NASA Buys Soyuz Seats from Boeing with Options Through 2019 if Commercial Crew Is Delayed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Feb-2017 (Updated: 27-Feb-2017 11:19 PM)

NASA has purchased two seats with an option for three more on Russian Soyuz spacecraft through Boeing to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS).  One seat each in 2017 and 2018 will allow a fourth U.S.-sponsored astronaut to fly to the ISS while Russia reduces its own crew complement.  The three options are for 2019 in case the new U.S. commercial crew systems, one of which is being built by Boeing, are not ready by then.  The options must be exercised by the fall of this year.

Boeing gained the ability to make seats on Soyuz available to NASA as part of an agreement with the Russian company Energia to settle outstanding financial issues related to the Sea Launch program.  Sea Launch was a U.S. (Boeing)-Russian (Energia)-Ukrainian (Yuzhonye) -Norwegian (Kvaerner) company that launched rockets from a converted mobile oil platform at sea. The platform was based in Long Beach, CA and towed to a location close to the equator to launch satellites in geostationary orbit (which is located above the equator).  Boeing was the major shareholder initially, but launch failures led to the company declaring bankruptcy in 2009 and Russia's Energia took majority ownership in 2010.  Sea Launch utilized Ukraine's Zenit booster and the disrupted Russian-Ukrainian relationship following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 added to the company's woes.  A Russian venture, S7 Group, is buying Sea Launch, but Boeing and Energia needed to reach a financial settlement first.  Energia builds the Soyuz spacecraft and the five seats were made available to Boeing as part of the settlement. 

In a FedBizOpps solicitation on January 17, 2017, NASA announced its intent to buy the seats via a modification of its existing Vehicle Sustaining Engineering Contract with Boeing.

NASA has not been able to launch astronauts into space since the termination of the space shuttle program in 2011.  Under the Intergovernmental Agreement (IGA) that governs the ISS partnership, the United States is responsible for transporting astronauts from NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) to and from ISS.  The IGA was signed at a time when NASA anticipated that the space shuttle would be available throughout the ISS's operational lifetime.

Without the shuttle, NASA must rely on Russia and its Soyuz spacecraft for crew transport as well as on-orbit lifeboat services so the crew can escape in an emergency.  The size of the resident ISS crew is limited in large part by the number that can be evacuated in an emergency.  Two Soyuzes are usually docked and each can accommodate three people, hence the current six-person limit.

NASA is prohibited from paying Russia for anything associated with the ISS program under the terms of the Iran-North Korean-Syria Non-proliferation Act (INKSNA), however, so must obtain a waiver to the law from Congress whenever it needs to contract with Russia for ISS-related services.  INKSNA applies whether the arrangement is through NASA itself or a U.S. company on behalf of NASA.

A waiver enacted in 2013 allows NASA to purchase ISS-related services from Russia through December 31, 2020 (P.L. 112-273, the Space Exploration Sustainability Act).   In 2015, NASA signed its most recent contract with Russia for six seats and associated training and other support services.  They will accommodate U.S. and partner astronauts traveling to the ISS through the end of 2018 with a final return in the spring of 2019. 

By 2019, NASA hoped that the new commercial crew systems being developed by SpaceX (Crew Dragon) and Boeing (CST-100 Starliner) would be operational.  As noted by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) earlier this month, however, it is not certain that those companies will be ready by then.  GAO's report was released on February 16 and called on NASA to provide a contingency plan in case the commercial crew systems are not ready as planned.  NASA agreed to provide such a plan by March 13. 

Five days later, on February 21, NASA posted an article on an ISS research website announcing its purchase of the seats through Boeing.  The agency did not issue a press release. The article explained the advantages of having four U.S.-sponsored crew members aboard ISS in 2017 and 2018 and the flexibility if the commercial crew systems are delayed.

Usually there are three Russians and three U.S.-sponsored crew aboard ISS. The U.S.-sponsored crew members typically include two Americans and one representative from  Europe, Canada or Japan.  Budget constraints in Russia led its space agency, Roscosmos, to temporarily cut back the Russian crew complement from three to two in order to reduce resupply requirements.  Since six people are usually aboard, if only two are Russian, four U.S.-sponsored crew members can be accommodated.

NASA is anxious to increase the number of crew available to conduct scientific research on ISS.  With three U.S.-sponsored crew members available, it strives to spend a total of 35 hours per week on research.  Four will increase how much research can be conducted.

NASA spokeswoman Stephanie Schierholz said via email that NASA paid $491 million to Russia for the six Soyuz seats it acquired in 2015, which includes training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and crew rescue as well as limited crew cargo delivery to and from the ISS.  That is approximately $81.8 million per seat including the additional services.

Purchasing the Boeing seats increased the Vehicle Sustaining Engineering contract value by $373.5 million, Schierholz said.  That yields a price per seat of $74.7 million.