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Export-Import Bank Will Have to Wait - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Jul-2015 (Updated: 30-Jul-2015 03:56 PM)

UPDATE, July 30, 3:50 pm EDT:  This afternoon the Senate passed the House's short-term (three-month) extension of the highway bill, that has no Export-Import Bank reauthorization, sending it to the President for signature.  The Senate also passed its own long-term highway bill, that includes the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization adopted by amendment earlier this week; it will be waiting for House action when the House returns in September.

ORIGINAL POST, July 30, 8:19 am EDT:  The House began its summer recess last night without passing legislation to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank, leaving it in limbo at least until September.  Instead it passed a short-term extension to the highway bill without an Ex-Im Bank provision and sent it to the Senate before turning out the lights.  The House will meet in pro forma sessions, but no legislative business is scheduled until September 8.

The Bank's charter, originally enacted in 1934, must be periodically renewed.  It expired on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed.  The issue splits the Republican and Democratic parties with some members of each insisting that the bank is essential to U.S. exports and therefore to U.S. jobs, while others assert it is corporate welfare for a few big companies.  Boeing is often mentioned in the latter regard.  Advocates claim that small and medium size businesses also benefit not only because of their own projects, but because many are suppliers to the big companies.

The Bank helps provide financing for U.S. exports, including communications satellites, for example.  The Aerospace Industries Associate and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.  

Reauthorization of the Bank is the source of bitter contention in the Senate, but earlier this week that chamber did agree to a multi-year extension of the bank as an amendment to a must-pass highway bill.  There is no substantive connection between the highway bill and the Ex-Im Bank reauthorization, but attaching one to the other was part of a strategy to get both passed before the summer recess began.  Senate supporters of the Ex-Im Bank hoped that enough House members would be willing to accept reauthorization of the Bank in order to keep money flowing from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation projects.  The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires tomorrow (July 31).

The House Republican leadership rejected that strategy, however, and instead passed a separate short-term extension of the Highway Trust Fund authorization (until October 29) without any reference to the Ex-Im Bank.  That bill is now pending before the Senate, which is likely to pass it since they do not want highway funding to end and the House has gone home for five weeks so nothing else can pass both chambers until September.

During an appearance at The Economic Club of Washington, D.C.. yesterday,  Boeing chairman, W. James McNerney, Jr said that the Boeing is "actively" considering moving some of its operations overseas so it can take advantage of other countries' equivalents of the Ex-Im Bank.  Explaining that the whole point of the Bank is to level the playing field with foreign competitors, McNerney said If there will be no U.S. Ex-Im Bank, "we are actively considering now moving key pieces of our company to other countries and we never would have considered it before this craziness on Ex-Im."   

He called it "the triumph of ideology over any description of private business."   Boeing is the biggest beneficiary by dollars, he agreed, but not by transactions:  "There are more deals for small and medium size companies than big companies," adding that "70 percent of the value added of our airplanes are made up by small companies ... who would never have a chance to export without us."  The congressional situation is a "sign of dysfunctionality" when two-thirds of the House and of the Senate support reauthorization, but legislation cannot pass because of the "extremes" of the two parties.

Rep. Chaka Fattah Indicted, Steps Down as House CJS Subcommittee Ranking Member

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 29-Jul-2015 (Updated: 29-Jul-2015 07:15 PM)

Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), the top Democrat on the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and NOAA, stepped down from that position today after being indicted by the Justice Department for misuse of funds.  Fattah denied the charges.

In a statement, Fattah criticized an "eight year effort by some at the Department of Justice to link my public service career to some form of wrongdoing.  With today's charges, this misguided campaign has now moved from speculation to specific allegations....I have never participated in any illegal activity or misappropriation of taxpayer dollars as an elected official."

Rep. Chaka Fattah.   Photo Credit:  Fattah website.

The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee funds not only NASA and NOAA, but the Department of Justice.

Fattah said he was stepping aside as ranking member of the subcommittee in accordance with House rules and precedent, but will "proudly" continue to serve his constituents.

The Justice Department said he and four associates were charged in a 29-count indictment "involving bribery, concealment of unlawful campaign contributions and theft of charitable and federal funds to advance their own personal interests."  

Fattah has been a reliable space program supporter during his tenure as ranking member of the CJS subcommittee.  The House already has passed its version of the FY2016 CJS appropriations bill, but Fattah ordinarily would have been a key member of conference negotiations with the Senate on a final version of the bill. 

Multiple media outlets report that he will be replaced by the next highest ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), whose district is near NASA's Ames Research Center.   Honda himself is currently under scrutiny by the House Ethics Committee for an alleged violation of ethics rules regarding coordination between his official staff and his campaign staff.

Senate Adopts Ex-Im Bank Extension, But Fate Still Uncertain - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 27-Jul-2015 (Updated: 28-Jul-2015 08:16 AM)

UPDATE, July 28, 2015, 8:10 am EDT:  The Aerospace Industries Association issued a press release praising the Senate action and urging the House to follow suit.

ORIGINAL POST, July 27, 2015, 11:28 pm EDT:  The Senate tonight adopted an amendment to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank as part of a Highway Trust Fund reauthorization bill.  House Republican leaders stated earlier today, however, that they will not bring the Senate bill to the floor for a vote.

The amendment, offered by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) on behalf of Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), has been the source of bitter contention with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and other conservatives who consider the bank to be "corporate welfare." The bank assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products, and advocates insist that without it American exports will suffer and jobs will be lost.  The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.

The bank's authority to operate ended on June 30 when a previous reauthorization attempt failed.  The bank can continue current operations, but cannot take on new projects until and unless it is reauthorized.

The Kirk amendment would extend its authorization for four years.  Yesterday the Senate voted 67-26 to allow the amendment to be offered.   Tonight the vote was 64-29 to adopt it. The Senate has yet to vote on the underlying bill.  Even assuming that it passes, its fate is far from certain.

House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) vowed today that the House will not take up the Senate bill.  The House and Senate disagree not only on the Ex-Im Bank issue, but on the underlying highway bill that allows disbursement of funds from the Highway Trust Fund for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects.  The Highway Trust Fund's authorization expires on Friday, July 31.  The House is scheduled to begin its August recess on Friday, so some type of agreement will have to be made - perhaps a short term extension.  The House already passed a 5 month extension of the highway bill -- without an Ex-Im Bank provision -- and McCarthy wants the Senate to pass that bill, not the version now before the Senate.

What happens next is anyone's guess.


Senate Agrees to Consider Amendment to Reauthorize Ex-Im Bank

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2015 (Updated: 26-Jul-2015 07:06 PM)

The Senate took a small, but important, step towards potentially reauthorizing the Export-Import Bank during a rare Sunday session today.  The action does not reauthorize the bank, but sets up a vote on an amendment to do just that later in the week, perhaps as early as tomorrow (Monday).

The Export-Import Bank, created in 1934, assists in the financing of U.S. exports, including aerospace products such as communications satellites.  The Aerospace Industries Association and the Satellite Industry Association are among those trying to convince Congress to reauthorize the Ex-Im Bank.   Its authority to operate expired on June 30 when previous efforts at reauthorization failed.  The bank may continue existing operations for now, but cannot take on new projects.

The issue is divisive within both the Republican and Democratic parties.  Advocates argue that without the bank, exports of American goods will suffer and jobs will be lost.   Opponents insist that it is corporate welfare.  Boeing and General Electric are frequent targets of those critics because they reportedly received two-thirds of the bank's loan commitments between 2007 and 2013, but advocates, including President Obama, counter that smaller companies also benefit, including those that are suppliers to the big companies.

To expedite action, the Senate voted today to allow Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) to offer an amendment to an unrelated highway bill later this week.  The highway bill is "must pass" legislation because without it funds from the Highway Trust Fund cannot be disbursed to pay for highways, highway safety, and public transportation projects. That bill also is controversial.  It is far from certain that even if the Senate does pass the highway bill, with the Ex-Im bank reauthorization included, that the House will agree with either of those actions.  The House is scheduled to begin its month-long August recess on Friday, with last votes expected no later than 3:00 pm ET on Thursday.

That gives the Senate only a few days to pass its bill and try to reach a compromise with the House in order to send legislation to the President' before the Highway Trust Fund authorization expires on July 31.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is a strident opponent of the bank and on Friday publicly accused Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) of lying to him and other Senate Republicans about the issue in a blistering statement on the Senate floor (which is available on YouTube).  Such intra-party disputes are not typically aired in front of the C-SPAN cameras.

The procedural vote today to allow Kirk to offer the amendment was 67-26 (60 votes were needed).  Cruz and 25 other Republicans voted against it.  

That does not signal what the fate of the amendment itself will be when it is finally debated, however.   Some of those who voted to allow the amendment to be offered may nonetheless oppose the amendment itself.   At the moment, the Kirk amendment is on the schedule for tomorrow (Monday, July 27), along with several other amendments.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has a useful report explaining the Ex-Im Bank controversy.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 26-31, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Jul-2015 (Updated: 26-Jul-2015 11:43 AM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 26-31, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in session this week.

During the Week

The House is scheduled to begin its annual August recess on Friday (no votes are scheduled after Thursday at 3:00 pm ET), so this is the last week for Congress to deal with any "must pass" legislation for programs expiring at the end of July.  To that end, the Senate is beginning its week today, Sunday, in a continuing attempt to pass a bill to reauthorize expenditures from the Highway Trust Fund for highway, highway safety, and public transportation programs that otherwise will expire on July 31.  While the highway bill per se is not a space-related issue, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has agreed to allow an amendment to be offered to reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.  Last month, Congress failed to reauthorize the bank and its charter expired.  The bank is still operating, but cannot take on new projects. The bank offers loan guarantees for customers wanting to buy products -- like communications satellites -- from U.S. manufacturers and the Aerospace Industries Association and Satellite Industry Association are among its supporters.  Critics claim it is corporate welfare. The issue splits both parties and has the Senate in turmoil.  Even if a bill does pass the Senate, there is no guarantee the House will go along. The Senate is scheduled to be in session during the first week of August, but if the House recesses as planned, it would not be able to pass a compromise until it returns in September, so the Senate would have to agree to something the House already passed, perhaps a short-term extension for the highway funds and/or the Ex-Im Bank.  What will happen is very much up in the air.

With such disarray, the likelihood of other legislation passing is diminished, but it is always possible that relatively non-controversial bills could get through.  One possibility is the Senate Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, S. 1297, which was formally reported from the Senate Commerce Committee on Wednesday (S. Rept. 114-88).  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) is the main sponsor of the bill, however, and his verbal attack on McConnell on the Senate floor on Friday because of the Ex-Im bank issue (available on YouTube) might weigh against it getting a spot on the calendar, which McConnell controls.  It really is anyone's guess, though.

This is "NAC week" at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, CA.   Many of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) committees will meet early in the week, with the full NAC meeting Wednesday afternoon through Friday morning.   The committee and Council meetings are available by WebEx and telephone for anyone who wants to listen in.  Bear in mind that times listed on the agendas are in local time at the meeting venue -- Pacific Daylight Time in this case.

On Tuesday, trying to tune into those meetings will compete with three interesting events in Washington, DC:  the National Transportation Safety Board's (NTSB's) public meeting to finalize its report on the October 2014 SpaceShipTwo crash beginning at 9:30 am ET; a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee hearing at 10:00 am ET on planetary exploration -- including testimony from the Principal Investigators for the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Dawn mission to Vesta and Ceres (Alan Stern and Christopher Russell, respectively); and a NOAA briefing at 1:00 pm ET on 10 Years Since Hurricane Katrina featuring NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan and the heads of NOAA's four line offices, including Steve Volz, who is in charge of NOAA's satellite programs.  All three events are available by webcast or WebEx.

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

Monday-Tuesday, July 27-28

Monday-Wednesday, July 27-29

Monday-Friday, July 27-31

Tuesday, July 28

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 28-29

Wednesday-Friday, July 29-31

Ted Cruz and Star Trek

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-Jul-2015 (Updated: 24-Jul-2015 12:40 AM)

While not the same type of space policy pronouncements made by other presidential contenders, Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) expounded on his views of the fictional Captains James T. Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard in an interview with the New York Times published on Thursday.

As a Senator, Cruz has made clear that he believes NASA should focus on space exploration, not earth science and that he is an advocate for commercial space.   He chairs the Space, Science and Competitiveness Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which sets policy and authorizes funding for NASA. 

Turns out he is also a Star Trek fan with strong views on whether Kirk or Picard is the better character.

In an interview with Ana Marie Cox, Cruz called Kirk "working class" and a "passionate fighter for justice" as compared to Picard, an "aristocrat" and "cerebral philosopher."  He prefers Kirk, adding that he thinks Kirk would be a Republican and Picard a Democrat.

The rather odd exchange did not add much to the knowledge base of what Cruz would do with the space program if he becomes President, but it was fun.

Two other presidential candidates, Jeb Bush (R) and Hillary Clinton (D) have expressed their enthusiastic support for NASA.  Bush was governor of Florida, home of Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and Kennedy Space Center, for eight years.  Clinton wanted to be an astronaut when she was 14.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 20-24, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Jul-2015 (Updated: 19-Jul-2015 12:47 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 20-24, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  Congress is in session this week.

During the Week

SpaceX will hold a telecon with media representatives tomorrow (Monday) at noon Pacific Time (3:00 pm ET) to discuss preliminary findings from its investigation of the June 28, 2015 SpaceX CRS-7 launch failure.  The emailed announcement says it is for media only and will last 30 minutes, which does not allow much time for Q&A, but undoubtedly will be of great interest.

Meanwhile, NASA and Rocosmos are getting ready to launch Soyuz TMA-17M with three new crew members to the International Space Station (ISS) on Wednesday Eastern Daylight Time (where it already will be Thursday local time at the launch site in Kazakhstan).  NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren, JAXA astronaut Kimiya Yui, and Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Kononenko will join three colleagues (NASA's Scott Kelly and Roscosmos' Mikhail Kornienko and Gennady Padalka) already on board, restoring the crew complement to its usual six.  The TMA-17M launch was delayed following the Progress M-27M launch failure in April. 

NASA said on Friday that it would have another press briefing on the results from the New Horizons flyby of Pluto this coming Friday, but the time and other details have not been announced yet.

Those and other events coming up this week that we know about as of Sunday morning are listed below.

Monday, July 20

Tuesday, July 21

Tuesday-Wednesday, July 21-22

Tuesday-Thursday, July 21-23

Wednesday, July 22

Thursday, July 23

Friday, July 24

  •  NASA Briefing on Results from New Horizons Pluto flyby (tentative, details TBD)

ISS Operations OK Despite Cargo Losses, But What's the Future?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 11-Jul-2015 (Updated: 11-Jul-2015 10:24 PM)

Despite the failure of three cargo missions to the International Space Station (ISS) over the past 8 months, operations aboard the orbiting laboratory are fine, NASA and Boeing officials told Congress on Friday. The question is what the future will be for ISS and, perhaps more importantly, for low Earth orbit (LEO) research opportunities after ISS ends.

Those questions were addressed -- if not definitively answered -- at a June 10, 2015 hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee.  Witnesses with NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier; Boeing Vice President and General Manager for Space Exploration John Elbon; NASA Inspector General (IG) Paul Martin; Government Accountability Office (GAO) expert Shelby Oakley; and Penn State physiologist and kinesiologist James Pawelczyk, who flew as a payload specialist on the 1998 Neurolab space shuttle mission.  (Boeing was the prime contractor for the ISS and continues to provide sustaining engineering for the U.S. segment.)

Current Status of ISS.   Gerstenmaier and Elbon repeatedly said ISS today is fine despite the losses of three cargo ships over the past 8 months: Orbital Sciences Corporation's (now Orbital ATK) Orb-3 in October 2014; Russia's Progress M-27M in April 2015, and SpaceX's CRS-7 (SpX-7) in June 2015.

That is not to say nothing of value was lost.   Gerstenamier estimates that NASA lost $110 million worth of cargo on the SpX-7 mission alone.  NASA bears that cost, just as the researchers who lost their experiments are not reimbursed. Gerstenmaier said NASA is now looking at buying insurance for its cargo.

Of most concern is the International Docking Adapter (IDA) that was on SpX-7.  Two IDAs are needed for the two upcoming commercial crew vehicles -- SpaceX's Crew Dragon and Boeing's CST-100 -- to dock with the ISS.  The second is already awaiting launch, but a third will have to be built to replace the one lost on SpX-7.  Some parts are available and the schedule can be met, but there will be a "dollar loss" to the ISS program, Gerstenmaier said.

He added some research experiments were lost twice -- first on Orb-3 and then again on SpX-7 after they were quickly reconstituted for reflight.  And the Progress M-27M failure delayed the launch of three ISS crew members (now scheduled for July 22 Eastern Daylight Time), reducing the amount of research that the ISS crew can conduct.

In essence, basic operations of ISS were not affected by the three cargo spacecraft losses, but  "the research impacts"  cannot be recovered.

Responsibility for Cargo Losses and Accident Investigations.  The role NASA is playing in the investigations of the Orb-3 and SpX-7 failures was a repeated theme during the hearing.  Gerstenmaier and NASA IG Martin reminded the committee that they were commercial launches licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the investigations take place under FAA's regulations.  That means that the respective companies take the lead.  Gerstenmaier stressed, however, that NASA as well as the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are fully engaged in those investigations and NASA can do its own independent review if necessary.   He believes both Orbital ATK and SpaceX are being completely transparent in their investigations, however.

Gerstenmaier said the three accidents over such a short period of time was unexpected, but "the tragedy will be if we don't learn from these events."  It is a "painful" learning process, but one better learned on cargo than crewed missions, he added.

Russia as a Partner.  Gerstenmaier reassured the subcommittee that Russia is a strong and reliable partner on ISS despite tensions between the U.S. and Russian governments here on Earth.  The day before this hearing, the President's nominee to be the next Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford (USMC), told a Senate committee that Russia is the "greatest threat" to the United States.   Gerstenmaier, however, said that the cooperation on ISS "transcends" those differences.  "The challenge of human spaceflight ... transcends ... the toughness of the outside world."  He characterized the technical relationship between the two countries with regard to operating ISS as "extremely strong and extremely transparent in spite of governmental tensions" and the two are working together "extremely effectively."  The two countries are "mutually dependent" in terms of ISS operations and interact on a daily basis.

Research on the ISS.    Pawelczyk stressed the need for more crew hours dedicated to research.  Crew time is the biggest constraint on research and "we need that seventh crew member."  NASA plans to increase the current six-person ISS crew to seven once the U.S. commercial crew systems are operational.

Most importantly, to learn what is needed to successfully send humans to Mars, biological research on the ISS must expand to cover the entire mammalian life cycle and incorporate the effects of the partial gravity humans will experience on Mars, Pawelczyk urged.  For that, the centrifuge capability on the ISS must be "improved."   The space station originally was intended to include a module with a 2.4 meter centrifuge capable of experimenting with humans in varying levels of gravity ("g"), not just the microgravity of a space station in LEO, but the centrifuge module was cancelled due to budget constraints.  The Moon has 1/6 g and Mars has 1/3 g.  How humans might respond to those partial gravity levels rather than microgravity is an open question.  

Pawelczyk also cautioned that as ISS ages, more time may be needed for maintenance, further reducing the amount of time available for research.  GAO's Oakley made a related  point.   She said NASA's top priorities for the ISS are safety and crew transportation, maintenance, and research, in that order.  If costs increase for the first two, she warned, that could mean less money for research.

Pawelczyk praised NASA for its turn around in the past 5 years in supporting the biological and physical scientists who want to do research in space, calling it a "transformation" that is "nothing less than remarkable."  NASA is listening to the advice from the National Research Council's Decadal Survey that recommended priorities for physical and biological research in space, he said, and a new generation of researchers is emerging.

Extending ISS to 2024 Or Beyond.  Several subcommittee members said that Congress has not yet authorized operation of ISS beyond 2020, citing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, implying that it could not continue beyond that without further congressional action.  The 2010 Act (P.L. 111-267), however, authorizes operation of ISS "through at least 2020" so does not establish a formal end date. Absent further congressional action, presumably it could continue.  At the moment,  S. 1297, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, approved by the Senate Commerce Committee in May, would extend ISS through "at least 2024."  The House-passed 2015 NASA Authorization Act (for which there is no Senate counterpart yet) asks for a report from NASA on the costs for extending ISS to 2024 or 2030.  That provision also is in the version of the 2016-2017 NASA Authorization Act adopted by the House Science, Space and Technology Committee in April. 

Elbon said that Boeing's analysis shows that ISS will be structurally sound at least until 2028, but the key is finding researchers to use it and providing adequate funding.

Gerstenmaier was asked how many of the ISS partners have committed to extending ISS operations to 2024 as proposed last year by President Obama.  Only Canada, he replied.  He is optimistic that Russia will agree by the end of this year.  Japan may approve late this year or early next year, and the European Space Agency (ESA) perhaps in 2017, he forecast.

NASA IG Martin said that several reports by his office have looked at extending ISS to 2024 and while NASA says there are no major obstacles, his office disagrees.  In particular, it found NASA's cost estimate of $3-4 billion per year for ISS operations "optimistic."  Martin said ISS costs have increased approximately 8 percent per year on average, but was 26 percent between FY2011 and FY2013. 

GAO's Oakley agreed.  She said GAO has not seen any formal costs estimates from NASA for operations beyond 2020. 

What's Next?  ISS has a finite lifetime.  There is no disagreement on that, only on whether it will stop in 2020, 2024, 2028 or later, and what, if anything, comes next.  

NASA's plans are focused on moving out into cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars, not on building more research facilities in LEO.   Gerstenmaier said NASA is "looking to see if we can leave low Earth orbit to commercial companies,"  emphasizing that a facility on the order of the ISS may not be necessary. Small spacecraft like a SpaceX Dragon or Orbital ATK Cygnus outfitted for research could be sufficient.  SpaceX is working on a DragonLab version of the Dragon spacecraft, for example.  NASA wants to use ISS to "let the private sector understand the benefits" of research in microgravity and determine if there is a market there.

What's Happening in Space Policy July 6-10, 2015

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jul-2015 (Updated: 05-Jul-2015 12:04 PM)

Here is our list of space policy related events for the week of July 6-10, 2015 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week (starting on Tuesday).

During the Week

NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto went into safe mode yesterday, just 10 days away from its closest encounter with Pluto after a nearly 10 year journey.  Keeping up to date on efforts to remedy that situation and on SpaceX's progress in determining the cause of its Falcon 9 failure on June 28 certainly will be key topics to follow this week.

The SpaceX Falcon 9 was taking supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) crew and the good news is that a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft safely docked very early this morning Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  Still, ensuring effective operations on ISS to achieve the scientific research that is its raison d'être is a hot topic that will be addressed at a major conference in Boston and on Capitol Hill this week.

From Tuesday-Thursday, the American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its fourth annual conference on ISS R&D in collaboration with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).  This year's conference is in Boston. (A pre-conference user workshop featuring NASA astronaut Cady Coleman and an opening reception will be held tomorrow). 

The  morning sessions each day will be webcast.   Of the conference's many sessions, those likely of most interest to the policy community that will be webcast are the following:

  • Tuesday --
    • Mike Suffredini, NASA ISS Program Manager  (8:15-8:30 am ET)
    • Elon Musk, SpaceX founder, CEO and Lead Designer (8:30 - 9:30 am ET)
    • Panel with Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA AA for Human Exploration and Operations; Mark Sirangelo, Sierra Nevada Space Systems Corporate Vice President; Rob Ferl, University of Florida Director of Interdisciplinary Center for Biotechnology Research; and Mary Lynne Dittmar, CASIS Senior Policy Advisor, moderator  (9:45 - 11:00 am ET)
  • Wednesday --
    • Panel with Jeff Bingham, former Senate staffer; Sam Scimemi, NASA ISS Program Director; John Shannon, Boeing ISS Program Manager; Frank Culbertson, Orbital ATK Space Systems Group President; Jeff Manber, NanoRacks Managing Director; and Janice Hess, Teledyne Brown Engineering Segment, President, Engineered Systems (9:30-11:00 am ET)
  • Thursday --
    • Panel with Dava Newman, NASA Deputy Administrator; Ellen Stofan, NASA Chief Scientist; David Miller, NASA Chief Technologist; and Mary Lynne Dittmar, CASIS Senior Policy Advisor, moderator (8:15-9:45 am ET)

On Friday, action shifts to Washington where the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee will hold a hearing at 9:00 am ET on "International Space Station:  Addressing Operational Challenges."  Witnesses include Gerstenmaier, Boeing's John Elbon, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin, and GAO's Shelby Oakley.

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

Tuesday-Thursday, July 7-9  (with pre-conference activities on Monday, July 6)

Friday, July 10



Shelton Versus McCain on Import of SpaceX Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Jul-2015 (Updated: 02-Jul-2015 04:55 PM)

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and Gen. William Shelton (Ret.) view the June 28 SpaceX launch failure very differently.   In a McCain statement and a Wall Street Journal op-ed by Shelton, the two take opposite positions on what should be learned from the failure in terms of national security space launches and how long Russian RD-180 engines are needed by the U.S. military to have assured access to space.

The congressional push to end reliance on RD-180s began while Shelton was still on active duty and Commander of Air Force Space Command and he and McCain differed on these issues all along.  At the last congressional hearing on the topic during Shelton's tenure, in July 2014, they were fully were on display.  Apparently nothing has changed.

Gen. William Shelton while on active duty.  He
is now retired from the Air Force.
(Photo credit:  U.S. Air Force /Duncan Wood)

Ending reliance on RD-180s, which are used for the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket to launch national security satellites, and allowing SpaceX to compete with ULA for those launches, have become inextricably entwined.  Sunday's SpaceX launch failure adds fuel to the debate.

At the July 2014 hearing, Shelton agreed that it is time to build an American alternative to the RD-180, though he did not hide his admiration for the technical performance of the RD-180-powered Atlas V.  Atlas V has a 100 percent success rate so far.  He worried that it not be phased out before an American alternative is fully ready to replace it to ensure that ULA can be competitive with SpaceX later this decade.   McCain, however, insinuated that Shelton was favoring ULA and was against SpaceX.  He asserted that he did not like the Air Force's "block buy" contract with ULA for 36 rocket engine cores signed in 2013 and reminded everyone of the improprieties he uncovered in an aerial tanker lease deal with Boeing when "people went to jail and people got fired."  ULA is a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Sen. John McCain (R-AZ).  Photo credit:  McCain Senate website.

Shelton's successor as Air Force Space Command commander, Gen. John Hyten, has testified a number of times since then with essentially the same message -- yes, a new American-made engine should replace the RD-180, but make sure the new engine (and launch vehicle, if needed) is fully functional before ending use of the RD-180s.  Hyten and higher level DOD officials, including Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, are currently trying to get Congress to relax a requirement in last year's National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that RD-180 use end by 2019.

Meanwhile, SpaceX was certified at the end of May to compete with ULA for national security launches.  At the time, it had 18 consecutive Falcon 9 launch successes.   The question is how important Sunday's Falcon 9 failure is to SpaceX's ability to compete and, on a larger scale, what it might mean later this decade when Atlas V's no longer are in service because of the RD-180 ban if an alternative is not ready.  Critics argue SpaceX will become a monopoly supplier with a less reliable rocket.  ULA has been the monopoly provider of national security launches since it was formed in 2006.  It launches Atlas V and Delta IV, but Delta IV is very expensive -- ULA puts the price at $400 million per launch -- so is not cost competitive with SpaceX, the argument goes.  Thus SpaceX would win all the competitions in that time frame and become a monopoly itself..

In his Wall Street Journal op-ed on June 29, the day after the SpaceX failure, Shelton, now retired, made his points again.  Agreeing that it is "smart policy" to build a U.S. alternative to the RD-180, he argued that "an abrupt ban is not smart."   The House-passed FY2016 NDAA (H.R. 1735) provides flexibility as to how long the RD-180 may be used, as requested by the Air Force.  Shelton wants Congress to adopt that position during the conference between the House and Senate on the final version of the FY2016 NDAA.  The Senate version, written by McCain and his SASC colleagues, insists on 2019 as required by current law.

In a statement (reproduced below), McCain called Sunday's launch failure "a minor setback" that "will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions."   As for those who try to "leverage" the failure to argue for more RD-180s than the nine allowed in the Senate bill, this "mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves" of RD-180s.  He often states that paying Russia for the engines funds Russian President Vladimir Putin and his "cronies."   He vowed that "With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose" the House language.

The House and Senate began appointing conferees for the NDAA before Congress recessed for the July 4 holiday.  How long it will take for them to reach agreement on this and other issues is unknown.  President Obama has threatened to veto the bill for a variety of reasons.  His Statement of Administration Policy on the Senate bill (S. 1376) criticized several of the launch-related provisions including insistence on 2019 for ending use of RD-180s.

Sen. McCain's statement is not published on his website yet.  The text was provided to by his press officer, Julie Tarallo, via email and reads as follows:

I will be closely monitoring the outcome of the pending investigation into this launch failure, which comes after seven successful Falcon 9 launches to the International Space Station.
Any time we have a launch failure is a bad day for the United States space program. But our nation did not go to space because it was easy, but because it was hard. Space is still hard, and challenges like these serve as a reminder that space launch remains a very high-risk endeavor requiring unwavering perseverance and utmost dedication among the select few who strive to one day make it commonplace, reliable, and affordable. I am confident that the that this minor setback will in no way impede the future success of SpaceX and its ability to support U.S. national security space missions.
There will be those that will seek to leverage this incident to argue for deepening America’s dependence on Russian rocket engines for national security space launches. This mishap in no way diminishes the urgency of ridding ourselves of the Russian RD-180 rocket engine. The Department of Defense will continue to have two launch providers until at least 2018, if not later. If that competitive environment were placed at risk in the coming years, I am confident the Congress could revisit this issue in order to mitigate any national security impacts.
With Russian troops still occupying Ukraine and killing its citizens, I will continue to oppose language currently in the House defense authorization bill, which guarantees that $300 million of taxpayer money will go to Vladimir Putin, his cronies, and the Russian military industrial base.

Editor's Note:  The statement refers to seven successful Falcon 9 flights to the ISS, a count that must include the C2+ demonstration flight in 2012 plus the six operational cargo missions prior to Sunday's attempt.