ALU

House

House joins Senate in push to extend ISS

ISS

WASHINGTON — A key House member announced Sept. 26 that he is introducing legislation that would extend operations of the International Space Station to 2030, weeks after senators sought a similar extension.

In his opening statement at a House space subcommittee hearing on the past and future of NASA’s space exploration efforts, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, said he was introducing legislation called the Leading Human Spaceflight Act that he said was designed to “provide further congressional direction to NASA.”

The text of the bill, designated H.R. 6910, was not immediately available. However, Babin said in his remarks that one provision of the bill would extend the existing authorization for operating the ISS from 2024 to 2030 unless a viable and less expensive commercial alternative was available sooner.

“As I’ve said before, the ISS is the crown jewel of America’s human spaceflight program,” he said. “Leadership in [low Earth orbit] returns tremendous economic benefits of space exploration to Earth.”

During the hearing, Babin asked the witnesses, which included NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier and directors of three NASA field centers, what the agency was doing to prevent “another detrimental capability gap” through its ISS transition efforts.

Gerstenmaier referred to a NASA ISS transition plan published earlier this year. “We treat that very seriously,” he said, citing studies awarded in August to a dozen companies to look at commercial opportunities. “We’re going to see what industry is interested in and what they can provide, and therefore we’ll build a smooth transition so we don’t have an abrupt end of one program and then start another program.”

“I think it’s critical that we have a follow-on to the International Space Station, that we do have a plan for low Earth orbit,” said Bob Cabana, director of the Kennedy Space Center. “It’s critical that we have a destination for our commercial partners, both crew and cargo.”

The proposed extension of the ISS to 2030 in the House bill mirrors language in the Space Frontier Act introduced in the Senate in July. That bill was approved by the Senate Commerce Committee Aug. 1 and awaits action by the full Senate.

In a simultaneous hearing by the Senate space subcommittee, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee and lead sponsor of the Space Frontier Act, reiterated his desire to extend the ISS. “American taxpayers have invested over $100 billion in the ISS, and it is important that we maximize the return on taxpayers’ investment,” he said in his opening remarks.

Cruz also played up the geopolitical angle, noting Chinese plans to establish its first permanently crewed space station in low Earth orbit by 2022. “We cannot cede low Earth orbit to China, or to any other nation,” he said. “The United States government must consider having a permanent human presence in low Earth orbit, which may require a government station after the ISS reaches the end of its useful operation.”

Cruz later asked his hearing’s only witness, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, about his concerns NASA seeks to abandon the ISS in 2024, leaving China with the only operating space station. “To be perfectly clear,” Bridenstine responded, “there is no plan to deorbit the International Space Station.”

Bridenstine emphasized NASA’s plans to transition operations in low Earth orbit to the commercial sector, which he argued would result in technological innovations and reduced costs. He said there are companies interested in establishing “consortia” that could operate the ISS commercially.

Cruz then asked Bridenstine if it would be “completely unacceptable” for China to have the only space station in Earth orbit, to which Bridenstine responded, “Yes, 100 percent.” Cruz then asked if it was technically feasible for the ISS to operate until 2030. “It is probably possible,” Bridenstine responded, but added it would depend on the risk and cost.

Bridenstine, in a Sept. 24 interview at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon, noted an extension of the ISS would have an impact on NASA’s other exploration initiatives given the agency’s projected budgets. “We can extend the International Space Station, and if Congress wants to give us a lot more money, we’ll take it,” he said. “But the reality is, given our current budget constraints, if we want to go to the moon and we want to go to Mars, we need to commercialize low Earth orbit and go on to the next step.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

Northrop CEO offers to link JWST profit to mission success

WASHINGTON — The chief executive of Northrop Grumman said July 26 he is willing to make the profit his company earns on the James Webb Space Telescope contingent on the overall success of the mission.

In the second half of a two-part hearing by the House Science Committee on the mission’s latest overruns, Wes Bush endorsed an idea discussed by the committee a day earlier to put all the award fees due to the company on its cost-plus contract into an account to be released only after the spacecraft is successfully commissioned in space after launch.

“As a mechanism to ensure we are all aligned on mission success, Northrop Grumman has actually discussed this with NASA, and we are willing to place all of the fee that we’ve already earned and the fee that we may earn in the future at risk based on successful activation and demonstration of the telescope on orbit,” he said when asked about the proposal by the committee’s chairman, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas).

Smith pressed for more. “Would you agree to pay the 800 [million dollars] above capped costs?” he asked, a reference to the recent overrun above the mission’s $8 billion cost cap.

Bush declined. “Our view on that is that would create more of a fixed-price relationship on this program, which would significantly impede and impair the relationship between NASA and Northrop Grumman,” he responded. “As we are focused on mission success, we think that would be the wrong approach.”

Smith said he was disappointed. “I only wish that Northrop Grumman was willing to take responsibility and show a little bit more good faith,” he said. “But it sounds like you’ve made up your mind. I just happen to disagree with you.”

At the end of the hearing, Smith again questioned Bush on issues such as the financial impact the cost overruns have had on Northrop and whether any employees responsible for human errors that led to delays had lost the jobs.

“With respect to the mistakes we’re talking about here today, I do not recall any losing their jobs,” Bush said.

Smith grew frustrated when Bush repeatedly declined to state the company’s profit last year, offering instead to provide that information for the record to ensure its accuracy. “How could a CEO not know what the profit of his company was last year?” Smith asked.

Northrop Grumman reported net earnings of just over $2 billion in 2017, according to the company’s 10-K filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in January 2018.

Smith’s questioning, though, was largely the exception to the rule in the hearing. Other members seemed less interested in assigning blame than seeking assurances that the problems that caused the latest overrun have been corrected.

“I’m not here to berate Northrop Grumman and its associated subcontractors, but rather see what needs to be done to keep this from happening again,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the committee, in her opening statement.

“I want to take issue with, I think, overstated allegations of poor management,” said Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). “We make the best decisions we can on a minute-by-minute basis, with the best advice we have, and sometimes we’re still going to get it wrong.”

Bush said the company was taking steps to minimize the possibility of future problems, including a “safety net” to catch human errors early enough to limit their impact. “We’re never going to be able to get human errors to zero. The word ‘human’ in that equation tells you that,” he said.

“I feel very, very good about where we are in that regard,” he said of those efforts to limit errors, adding the company has accepted and was implementing the recommendations of an independent review board (IRB) that released its final report a month ago.

Tom Young, the chairman of that board, argued at the hearing that NASA should reconvene the board in the near future — perhaps in the latter half of September — to check that the recommendations are being implement. “Our belief is that it should be done. The IRB is willing to do that, and we personally think that it needs to be done early enough in the process that it can have an impact and late enough where things have been done,” he said.

While most members appeared satisfied with Northrop Grumman’s efforts to address the JWST overrun, and highlighted the science and inspirational benefits, one congressman was not moved.

“I cannot join you in this uplifting testimony,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) Whoever was responsible for JWST at the company, he told Bush, “failed us and failed the American people.”

Original Link

NASA weighs delaying WFIRST to fund JWST overrun

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said July 25 that, in order to address the delays and cost overruns with the James Webb Space Telescope, the agency may seek to slow down development of another flagship astrophysics mission.

Testifying before the House Science Committee in the first half of a two-part hearing on JWST, Bridenstine suggested that slowing down work on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) until after JWST is launched could be a way to deal with JWST’s increased cost while maintaining a “balanced portfolio” of large and small astrophysics programs.

“The idea of WFIRST presumed that JWST would be on orbit and delivering science,” he said. “So it is my recommendation that we move forward with WFIRST after we move forward with JWST.”

“It is true we can do some development now. I’m not saying that we need to shut down WFIRST, and we shouldn’t do it,” he added. “What I’m saying is there’s opportunity here.”

Current plans for WFIRST call for a launch in 2025, assuming full funding. That funding is uncertain at the moment, though, since the administration proposed cancelling WFIRST in its 2019 budget request. House and Senate versions of appropriations bills would keep the mission going, but the House bill offers $150 million versus $352 million in the Senate bill. The latter amount, NASA says, is what’s needed to keep the mission on schedule.

NASA spokesperson Felicia Chou said after the hearing that if WFIRST’s budget were to be cut to pay JWST’s cost overruns, that would have the effect of slowing the project down. Those cuts would take place in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the years NASA has identified it needs approximately $490 million to cover additional JWST costs.

“It is within the range of possibilities that the reduction to WFIRST would be roughly one third of its budget in each of those years, and so the net delay to launch might be up to a few years,” she said.

Bridenstine said during the hearing that no decisions had been made on how to cover those additional JWST costs. “By the 2020 timeframe is when we’re going to need to have additional funds. So between now and then we’re going to have to make determinations,” he said. “Right now that process is underway.”

He said those decisions would consider the guidance from decadal surveys and a desire to maintain a balanced portfolio of programs. He specifically assured one member, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), that the extra funding would not come out of human spaceflight programs, particularly the Space Launch System. “This is relevant to the Science Mission Directorate exclusively, and that’s where, at this point, we’ve had discussions about what are the options going forward,” Bridenstine said.

Committee members used the two-and-a-half-hour hearing to express their frustrations with this latest delay, noting that the original concept for the mission called for it to cost $500 million and launch in 2007, versus a current lifecycle cost of $9.6 billion and launch in 2021. “This is 19 times the original cost and a delay of 14 years,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee. “It doesn’t get much worse than that.”

They directed some of that frustration at prime contractor Northrop Grumman for human errors that contributed to the latest delays. “Contractors will have to deliver on time and on budget. If they cannot, they should be penalized,” Smith said.

Bridenstine said they have some options for what Smith called “contractor accountability” for JWST. Northrop is not currently receiving an award fee on its cost-plus contract because of these delays, he said, and won’t be eligible for about half of the award fee it could earn once JWST is successfully launched and commissioned.

“Those potential award fees would add up to, if they were to maximize it, about $60 million. We have already taken off the table $28 million of that $60 million,” he said.

Tom Young, the chairman of the JWST independent review board and the hearing’s other witness, offered a different approach to the award fee issue. “If I had this problem, I would take all of the fees that currently exist,” he said, “and I’d put them all together in one lump sum, and I would have the criteria for getting them the quantity and quality of data returned by JWST after it’s on orbit.”

Members will get their opportunity to discuss contractor performance during the second half of the hearing July 26, when Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Wes Bush will testify with Young. The two-part hearing was necessitated by scheduling issues involving Bush and Bridenstine.

Members had little criticism, though, of Bridenstine, a former committee member who has been on the job at NASA for only three months. Some of his former colleagues expressed confidence that he would be able to get JWST back on track.

“Your legacy, I suspect, will be determined by how well you, working with all of the wonderful people at NASA and all the contractors, deliver on finishing James Webb,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)

Original Link

NASA weighs delaying WFIRST to fund JWST overrun

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said July 25 that, in order to address the delays and cost overruns with the James Webb Space Telescope, the agency may seek to slow down development of another flagship astrophysics mission.

Testifying before the House Science Committee in the first half of a two-part hearing on JWST, Bridenstine suggested that slowing down work on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) until after JWST is launched could be a way to deal with JWST’s increased cost while maintaining a “balanced portfolio” of large and small astrophysics programs.

“The idea of WFIRST presumed that JWST would be on orbit and delivering science,” he said. “So it is my recommendation that we move forward with WFIRST after we move forward with JWST.”

“It is true we can do some development now. I’m not saying that we need to shut down WFIRST, and we shouldn’t do it,” he added. “What I’m saying is there’s opportunity here.”

Current plans for WFIRST call for a launch in 2025, assuming full funding. That funding is uncertain at the moment, though, since the administration proposed cancelling WFIRST in its 2019 budget request. House and Senate versions of appropriations bills would keep the mission going, but the House bill offers $150 million versus $352 million in the Senate bill. The latter amount, NASA says, is what’s needed to keep the mission on schedule.

NASA spokesperson Felicia Chou said after the hearing that if WFIRST’s budget were to be cut to pay JWST’s cost overruns, that would have the effect of slowing the project down. Those cuts would take place in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the years NASA has identified it needs approximately $490 million to cover additional JWST costs.

“It is within the range of possibilities that the reduction to WFIRST would be roughly one third of its budget in each of those years, and so the net delay to launch might be up to a few years,” she said.

Bridenstine said during the hearing that no decisions had been made on how to cover those additional JWST costs. “By the 2020 timeframe is when we’re going to need to have additional funds. So between now and then we’re going to have to make determinations,” he said. “Right now that process is underway.”

He said those decisions would consider the guidance from decadal surveys and a desire to maintain a balanced portfolio of programs. He specifically assured one member, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), that the extra funding would not come out of human spaceflight programs, particularly the Space Launch System. “This is relevant to the Science Mission Directorate exclusively, and that’s where, at this point, we’ve had discussions about what are the options going forward,” Bridenstine said.

Committee members used the two-and-a-half-hour hearing to express their frustrations with this latest delay, noting that the original concept for the mission called for it to cost $500 million and launch in 2007, versus a current lifecycle cost of $9.6 billion and launch in 2021. “This is 19 times the original cost and a delay of 14 years,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee. “It doesn’t get much worse than that.”

They directed some of that frustration at prime contractor Northrop Grumman for human errors that contributed to the latest delays. “Contractors will have to deliver on time and on budget. If they cannot, they should be penalized,” Smith said.

Bridenstine said they have some options for what Smith called “contractor accountability” for JWST. Northrop is not currently receiving an award fee on its cost-plus contract because of these delays, he said, and won’t be eligible for about half of the award fee it could earn once JWST is successfully launched and commissioned.

“Those potential award fees would add up to, if they were to maximize it, about $60 million. We have already taken off the table $28 million of that $60 million,” he said.

Tom Young, the chairman of the JWST independent review board and the hearing’s other witness, offered a different approach to the award fee issue. “If I had this problem, I would take all of the fees that currently exist,” he said, “and I’d put them all together in one lump sum, and I would have the criteria for getting them the quantity and quality of data returned by JWST after it’s on orbit.”

Members will get their opportunity to discuss contractor performance during the second half of the hearing July 26, when Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Wes Bush will testify with Young. The two-part hearing was necessitated by scheduling issues involving Bush and Bridenstine.

Members had little criticism, though, of Bridenstine, a former committee member who has been on the job at NASA for only three months. Some of his former colleagues expressed confidence that he would be able to get JWST back on track.

“Your legacy, I suspect, will be determined by how well you, working with all of the wonderful people at NASA and all the contractors, deliver on finishing James Webb,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)

Original Link

House committee approves space weather bill

WASHINGTON — The House Science Committee approved July 24 a modified version of a space weather forecasting bill that the Senate passed last year amid criticism of the committee’s approach to the legislation.

The committee approved on a voice vote an amended version of S.141, the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act. That bill was introduced in the Senate in January 2017 and passed by unanimous consent in May 2017.

The original version of the bill codified many elements of a space weather strategy developed during the Obama administration, assigning responsibilities to various government agencies regarding forecasting of space weather and planning to mitigate the effects of major events on critical infrastructure.

The House originally intended to take up a companion bill, H.R. 3086, introduced last June by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) That bill’s original cosponsors included then Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), now the NASA administrator, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee.

What the committee did instead was take up an amendment that substituted the text of S.141 with a new bill. Among the differences in the amended bill are provisions that give responsibilities for space weather coordination to the National Space Council, which had not yet been reestablished when the Senate passed S.141 last year.

Under the revised bill, the National Space Council “shall establish national priorities for space weather” and create a National Committee for Space Weather Observation and Forecasting who would create a plan for delineating responsibilities for space weather activities. The bill also establishes a pilot program for acquiring commercial space weather data, patterned on a similar program at NOAA for commercial terrestrial weather data.

“By tasking the National Space Council with overseeing this framework, this amendment sets out a strategy that is consistent with the current administration’s approach to the management of space issues, and raises the profile of space weather and the serious threat it poses,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee.

“This text takes a different approach about how to meet these [space weather] goals than the Senate-passed bill, but with this shared goal in mind it’s another step towards getting space weather legislation signed into law this year,” said Perlmutter, who offered the amended text along with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.)

Johnson, though, criticized the amendment largely because of the approach the committee took to considering it. She noted the bill was added to the markup session only three days earlier, during the weekend, giving members little opportunity to review it or submit amendments for consideration by the committee.

“This hardly seems conducive to member participation,” she said. “This may be the least amount of notice I’ve ever received on a bill being marked up in the science committee.”

She questioned the haste at which the bill and its amendment were added, noting that it was done so quickly it required the committee to also take up a manager’s amendment — an amendment to the amendment — to make last-minute changes, even though the original bill and Perlmutter’s companion were introduced more than a year ago. “We could have considered these bills at any point in the past year instead of jamming the members of this committee with a late markup notice,” she said.

Smith said he added the bill to the markup session after discussing it with Perlmutter and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), a sponsor of S.141. “This was all in an effort to try to, frankly, keep a commitment I made to Mr. Perlmutter and the senator to mark up this bill before we broke for our August recess,” he said.

Johnson introduced an amendment of her own that would have effectively replaced S.141 with the H.R. 3086. “The text of my amendment has been vetted by the outside community for well over a year versus three days,” she said, noting that NOAA’s legislative affairs office had not received a copy of the amended S.141 prior to the markup.

Perlmutter reluctantly opposed Johnson’s amendment. “I like [H.R.] 3086 better than my substitute amendment. But the reality is this is what we agreed on,” he said, arguing there will be opportunities to change the bill later, when the House and Senate reconcile their bills. “I like my bill, but I’ll probably have to vote against it.”

The committee rejected Johnson’s amendment on a 13-to-19 vote, with Perlmutter joining the committee’s Republican members in voting no. Perlmutter’s amendment, the manager’s amendment and the overall bill passed on voice votes.

Original Link

House committee approves space weather bill

WASHINGTON — The House Science Committee approved July 24 a modified version of a space weather forecasting bill that the Senate passed last year amid criticism of the committee’s approach to the legislation.

The committee approved on a voice vote an amended version of S.141, the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act. That bill was introduced in the Senate in January 2017 and passed by unanimous consent in May 2017.

The original version of the bill codified many elements of a space weather strategy developed during the Obama administration, assigning responsibilities to various government agencies regarding forecasting of space weather and planning to mitigate the effects of major events on critical infrastructure.

The House originally intended to take up a companion bill, H.R. 3086, introduced last June by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) That bill’s original cosponsors included then Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), now the NASA administrator, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee.

What the committee did instead was take up an amendment that substituted the text of S.141 with a new bill. Among the differences in the amended bill are provisions that give responsibilities for space weather coordination to the National Space Council, which had not yet been reestablished when the Senate passed S.141 last year.

Under the revised bill, the National Space Council “shall establish national priorities for space weather” and create a National Committee for Space Weather Observation and Forecasting who would create a plan for delineating responsibilities for space weather activities. The bill also establishes a pilot program for acquiring commercial space weather data, patterned on a similar program at NOAA for commercial terrestrial weather data.

“By tasking the National Space Council with overseeing this framework, this amendment sets out a strategy that is consistent with the current administration’s approach to the management of space issues, and raises the profile of space weather and the serious threat it poses,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee.

“This text takes a different approach about how to meet these [space weather] goals than the Senate-passed bill, but with this shared goal in mind it’s another step towards getting space weather legislation signed into law this year,” said Perlmutter, who offered the amended text along with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.)

Johnson, though, criticized the amendment largely because of the approach the committee took to considering it. She noted the bill was added to the markup session only three days earlier, during the weekend, giving members little opportunity to review it or submit amendments for consideration by the committee.

“This hardly seems conducive to member participation,” she said. “This may be the least amount of notice I’ve ever received on a bill being marked up in the science committee.”

She questioned the haste at which the bill and its amendment were added, noting that it was done so quickly it required the committee to also take up a manager’s amendment — an amendment to the amendment — to make last-minute changes, even though the original bill and Perlmutter’s companion were introduced more than a year ago. “We could have considered these bills at any point in the past year instead of jamming the members of this committee with a late markup notice,” she said.

Smith said he added the bill to the markup session after discussing it with Perlmutter and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), a sponsor of S.141. “This was all in an effort to try to, frankly, keep a commitment I made to Mr. Perlmutter and the senator to mark up this bill before we broke for our August recess,” he said.

Johnson introduced an amendment of her own that would have effectively replaced S.141 with the H.R. 3086. “The text of my amendment has been vetted by the outside community for well over a year versus three days,” she said, noting that NOAA’s legislative affairs office had not received a copy of the amended S.141 prior to the markup.

Perlmutter reluctantly opposed Johnson’s amendment. “I like [H.R.] 3086 better than my substitute amendment. But the reality is this is what we agreed on,” he said, arguing there will be opportunities to change the bill later, when the House and Senate reconcile their bills. “I like my bill, but I’ll probably have to vote against it.”

The committee rejected Johnson’s amendment on a 13-to-19 vote, with Perlmutter joining the committee’s Republican members in voting no. Perlmutter’s amendment, the manager’s amendment and the overall bill passed on voice votes.

Original Link

House committee approves space weather bill

WASHINGTON — The House Science Committee approved July 24 a modified version of a space weather forecasting bill that the Senate passed last year amid criticism of the committee’s approach to the legislation.

The committee approved on a voice vote an amended version of S.141, the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act. That bill was introduced in the Senate in January 2017 and passed by unanimous consent in May 2017.

The original version of the bill codified many elements of a space weather strategy developed during the Obama administration, assigning responsibilities to various government agencies regarding forecasting of space weather and planning to mitigate the effects of major events on critical infrastructure.

The House originally intended to take up a companion bill, H.R. 3086, introduced last June by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) That bill’s original cosponsors included then Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), now the NASA administrator, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee.

What the committee did instead was take up an amendment that substituted the text of S.141 with a new bill. Among the differences in the amended bill are provisions that give responsibilities for space weather coordination to the National Space Council, which had not yet been reestablished when the Senate passed S.141 last year.

Under the revised bill, the National Space Council “shall establish national priorities for space weather” and create a National Committee for Space Weather Observation and Forecasting who would create a plan for delineating responsibilities for space weather activities. The bill also establishes a pilot program for acquiring commercial space weather data, patterned on a similar program at NOAA for commercial terrestrial weather data.

“By tasking the National Space Council with overseeing this framework, this amendment sets out a strategy that is consistent with the current administration’s approach to the management of space issues, and raises the profile of space weather and the serious threat it poses,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee.

“This text takes a different approach about how to meet these [space weather] goals than the Senate-passed bill, but with this shared goal in mind it’s another step towards getting space weather legislation signed into law this year,” said Perlmutter, who offered the amended text along with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.)

Johnson, though, criticized the amendment largely because of the approach the committee took to considering it. She noted the bill was added to the markup session only three days earlier, during the weekend, giving members little opportunity to review it or submit amendments for consideration by the committee.

“This hardly seems conducive to member participation,” she said. “This may be the least amount of notice I’ve ever received on a bill being marked up in the science committee.”

She questioned the haste at which the bill and its amendment were added, noting that it was done so quickly it required the committee to also take up a manager’s amendment — an amendment to the amendment — to make last-minute changes, even though the original bill and Perlmutter’s companion were introduced more than a year ago. “We could have considered these bills at any point in the past year instead of jamming the members of this committee with a late markup notice,” she said.

Smith said he added the bill to the markup session after discussing it with Perlmutter and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), a sponsor of S.141. “This was all in an effort to try to, frankly, keep a commitment I made to Mr. Perlmutter and the senator to mark up this bill before we broke for our August recess,” he said.

Johnson introduced an amendment of her own that would have effectively replaced S.141 with the H.R. 3086. “The text of my amendment has been vetted by the outside community for well over a year versus three days,” she said, noting that NOAA’s legislative affairs office had not received a copy of the amended S.141 prior to the markup.

Perlmutter reluctantly opposed Johnson’s amendment. “I like [H.R.] 3086 better than my substitute amendment. But the reality is this is what we agreed on,” he said, arguing there will be opportunities to change the bill later, when the House and Senate reconcile their bills. “I like my bill, but I’ll probably have to vote against it.”

The committee rejected Johnson’s amendment on a 13-to-19 vote, with Perlmutter joining the committee’s Republican members in voting no. Perlmutter’s amendment, the manager’s amendment and the overall bill passed on voice votes.

Original Link

House committee approves space weather bill

WASHINGTON — The House Science Committee approved July 24 a modified version of a space weather forecasting bill that the Senate passed last year amid criticism of the committee’s approach to the legislation.

The committee approved on a voice vote an amended version of S.141, the Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act. That bill was introduced in the Senate in January 2017 and passed by unanimous consent in May 2017.

The original version of the bill codified many elements of a space weather strategy developed during the Obama administration, assigning responsibilities to various government agencies regarding forecasting of space weather and planning to mitigate the effects of major events on critical infrastructure.

The House originally intended to take up a companion bill, H.R. 3086, introduced last June by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) That bill’s original cosponsors included then Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), now the NASA administrator, and Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee.

What the committee did instead was take up an amendment that substituted the text of S.141 with a new bill. Among the differences in the amended bill are provisions that give responsibilities for space weather coordination to the National Space Council, which had not yet been reestablished when the Senate passed S.141 last year.

Under the revised bill, the National Space Council “shall establish national priorities for space weather” and create a National Committee for Space Weather Observation and Forecasting who would create a plan for delineating responsibilities for space weather activities. The bill also establishes a pilot program for acquiring commercial space weather data, patterned on a similar program at NOAA for commercial terrestrial weather data.

“By tasking the National Space Council with overseeing this framework, this amendment sets out a strategy that is consistent with the current administration’s approach to the management of space issues, and raises the profile of space weather and the serious threat it poses,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee.

“This text takes a different approach about how to meet these [space weather] goals than the Senate-passed bill, but with this shared goal in mind it’s another step towards getting space weather legislation signed into law this year,” said Perlmutter, who offered the amended text along with Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.)

Johnson, though, criticized the amendment largely because of the approach the committee took to considering it. She noted the bill was added to the markup session only three days earlier, during the weekend, giving members little opportunity to review it or submit amendments for consideration by the committee.

“This hardly seems conducive to member participation,” she said. “This may be the least amount of notice I’ve ever received on a bill being marked up in the science committee.”

She questioned the haste at which the bill and its amendment were added, noting that it was done so quickly it required the committee to also take up a manager’s amendment — an amendment to the amendment — to make last-minute changes, even though the original bill and Perlmutter’s companion were introduced more than a year ago. “We could have considered these bills at any point in the past year instead of jamming the members of this committee with a late markup notice,” she said.

Smith said he added the bill to the markup session after discussing it with Perlmutter and Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), a sponsor of S.141. “This was all in an effort to try to, frankly, keep a commitment I made to Mr. Perlmutter and the senator to mark up this bill before we broke for our August recess,” he said.

Johnson introduced an amendment of her own that would have effectively replaced S.141 with the H.R. 3086. “The text of my amendment has been vetted by the outside community for well over a year versus three days,” she said, noting that NOAA’s legislative affairs office had not received a copy of the amended S.141 prior to the markup.

Perlmutter reluctantly opposed Johnson’s amendment. “I like [H.R.] 3086 better than my substitute amendment. But the reality is this is what we agreed on,” he said, arguing there will be opportunities to change the bill later, when the House and Senate reconcile their bills. “I like my bill, but I’ll probably have to vote against it.”

The committee rejected Johnson’s amendment on a 13-to-19 vote, with Perlmutter joining the committee’s Republican members in voting no. Perlmutter’s amendment, the manager’s amendment and the overall bill passed on voice votes.

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House passes two space bills

The Commercial Space Support Vehicle Act would allow the FAA to issue licenses for flights of aircraft like Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo for research and training missions, not just for launches. Credit: Virgin Galactic

RENTON, Wash. — The House of Representatives passed two non-controversial space bills June 27 addressing leadership in rocket propulsion research and licensing of commercial space support vehicles.

On voice votes, the House passed H.R. 5345, the American Leadership in Space Technology and Advanced Rocketry (ALSTAR) Act, and H.R. 5346, Commercial Space Support Vehicle Act, after brief debates and with no opposition.

The ALSTAR Act establishes a “sense of Congress” that NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center be considered the lead center for non-military rocket propulsion research in the United States. It calls on the center to take several steps to use that influence, from interagency coordination and collaboration with industry to evaluating and recommending specific technologies for further development. The bill, though, neither authorizes nor appropriates any funding for those tasks.

“As Congress guides America’s national space policy, we must promote the robust rocket propulsion industrial base that is essential to our space presence,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), the bill’s sponsor, in remarks on the House floor.

The Commercial Space Support Vehicle Act directs the Department of Transportation, through the Federal Aviation Administration, to issue licenses and experimental permits for “space support vehicles,” which include aircraft flights that provide training for or research supporting commercial launches. They include aircraft such as Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and Stratolaunch’s giant aircraft under development, which are intended to serve as air-launch platforms, as well as F-104 aircraft operated by Starfighters Aerospace for high-performance training and research.

Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.), the bill’s sponsor, linked the bill to Space Policy Directive 2, which calls on the Transportation Department to streamline launch licensing regulations by Feb. 1, a month before the deadline in the bill for the FAA to make necessary regulatory changes. “The intent of timing is to include the development of regulations in the regulatory reform process that the Vice President and the National Space Council tasked the FAA to complete by that date,” he said in remarks on the House floor.

Both bills passed through the House Science Committee, which favorably reported them to the House floor in March. “The passage of H.R. 5345 and H.R. 5346 reaffirms our commitment to keeping America the global leader in the growing space economy,” said committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in a statement after the bills’ passage. “It is vital we continue to support NASA and our commercial space sector so that we maintain a vibrant space program to inspire generations to come.”

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House Science Committee approves space traffic management bill

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee, said she opposed a bill that “rubber stamps” the administration’s space traffic management policy without additional study. Credit: House Science Committee webcast

RENTON, Wash. — The House Science Committee approved a bill June 27 that would give the Commerce Department new responsibilities for space traffic management despite opposition by some Democrats that the bill “rubber stamps” the administration’s space policy.

The committee favorably reported on a voice vote H.R. 6226, the American Space Situational Awareness and Framework for Entity (SAFE) Management Act. The legislation, announced by the committee June 22, would authorize the Commerce Department to provide space traffic management services, such as collision warnings, to civil and commercial satellite operators within one year of the bill’s enactment.

The bill authorizes NASA to develop a space traffic management science and technology plan, outlining research to be done to improve work in the area. It also calls on the Commerce Department to develop a pilot program for space traffic coordination.

The bill largely follows Space Policy Directive 3 signed by President Trump June 18, which assigns authority for civil space traffic management work to the Commerce Department. The Defense Department, who currently carries out that work, would continue to collect space situational awareness data for its own needs. It would provide a version of its catalog to Commerce, who could then augment with data from commercial or international sources.

“The American Space SAFE Management Act is the culmination of years of work that this committee has undertaken,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee and lead sponsor of the bill. He noted the bill has “the full support” of the administration and the National Space Council, as well as a number of companies and industry organizations.

However, the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), objected to the bill. “I do not support our committee rubber-stamping the half-baked efforts of the Trump administration to address the issue,” she said.

She noted that previous studies had looked at moving that responsibility to the Department of Transportation, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, only to have the current administration seek to move it to the Commerce Department instead. “This is in spite of the fact that Commerce has no existing infrastructure or expertise to support this important work,” she said. “In fact, no credible reason has been articulated for why the Commerce Department is the best place to house the function.”

She offered an amendment that would have replaced the bill with language instructing the National Academies to undertake a one-year study on which agency is best suited to handling space traffic management. That study, she said, would ensure that Congress fully understood the issue before deciding what agency should have that responsibility.

“We’re once again rushing to a markup without first having done our homework and our job as legislators,” she said.

Smith said there was no need for a new study given past studies on the topic, although those earlier reports didn’t specifically address if Commerce was the best agency to handle civil space traffic management. “It is time for us to act,” he said, citing a hearing on the topic June 22 by the space subcommittee, held jointly with the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee. “Time is critical.”

The committee rejected Johnson’s amendment on a vote of 13 to 17. Most Democrats voted in favor of the amendment, but two, Reps. Ami Bera (D-Calif.) and Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), opposed the amendment. Those two members are also co-sponsors of the bill.

The committee did approve on a voice vote a manager’s amendment making several changes to the bill that Smith said arose out of discussions after the bill was released last week. Those changes include requiring the Secretaries of Commerce and Defense to develop a transition plan for space traffic management to avoid any gap in such services. It also gives Commerce the authority to leverage resources and workforces of any federal agency needed, compared to the original bill that mentioned on support from NASA.

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Hearing raises questions about pace of commercial launch regulatory overhaul

Regulatory reform could streamling the licensing process for vehicle like Blue Origin’s New Glenn (above), but some in Congress and elsewhere are raising questions about the fast pace of that reform effort. Credit: Blue Origin

RENTON, Wash. — As the commercial launch industry seeks regulatory reforms to streamline the licensing process, other are raising concerns about a schedule that calls for those changes to be completed next year.

Space Policy Directive (SPD) 2, signed by President Trump May 24, directs the Department of Transportation, through the Federal Aviation Administration, to develop revised regulations for licensing of commercial launches and reentries. It specifically calls for a single license for all launches of a specific vehicle and replacing prescriptive requirements with performance-based criteria. The policy requires that work to be complete by Feb. 1, 2019.

At a hearing June 26 of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, industry representatives said such changes were needed to deal with regulations that don’t reflect the technologies used in vehicles today or the growing pace of launch activity.

“FAA launch licensing regulations, designed decades ago, are outdated and unnecessarily onerous,” said Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel at SpaceX. “They are not reflective of new technologies, such as reusable rockets and autonomous flight safety systems.” She said the company supported the reform process set into place by SPD-2.

Audrey Powers, deputy general counsel of Blue Origin, agreed. She noted that FAA’s licensing approach for expendable launch vehicle followed a prescriptive approach, while its licensing of reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) used performance-based criteria, giving companies the flexibility to choose its preferred technical approach for meeting those criteria. The company is able to take advantage of the latter for its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle, whose first stage is designed to be reused.

However, she said that since New Glenn will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, it must also comply with Air Force requirements, which follow the prescriptive approach the FAA uses for expendable vehicles regardless of whether the vehicle is expendable or reusable. “This means that reusable launch vehicle operators lose the benefit of FAA’s performance-based approach to regulating RLVs because we must also meet the Air Force’s prescriptive requirements,” she said.

SpaceX runs into other licensing issues, Schenewerk said, if it moves Falcon 9 launches between Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, a short distance apart but under different jurisdictions. “If we change sites prior to the mission, we have to undertake a license modification process,” she said. “That is not a practical situation.”

Some members of the subcommittee, though, worried about the pace of the reforms. “We’ve heard from some stakeholders that FAA’s regulations were adopted 25 years ago and are, in fact, in desperate need for a rewrite,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), ranking member of the subcommittee. “But we’ve also heard from folks who caution that safety might be compromised if the FAA is forced to ‘streamline’ its regulatory framework in just 12 months.”

“Safety is always paramount, and we’re never in favor of any time restriction or deadline that would impact safety,” said Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, who testified on the integration of space operations into the national airspace system, which is dominated by commercial aircraft.

He reiterated that later in the hearing. “The FAA needs time to do their safety data analysis so they propose rules that they’re comfortable meet the safety standard,” he said. “If the safest course means we’re not going to make the 12-month deadline, then we’re just not going to make the 12-month deadline.”

His later comments came in response to questions from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who was skeptical revised regulations could be completed in such a short period of time. “I’ve been on this committee for a long time, but I’ve never seen regulations done within one year,” she said.

Even some in the space industry raised questions about the pace of regulatory reform. “We have concerns the timeline is so aggressive,” said Kelly Gareheime, associate general counsel at United Launch Alliance.

Her issue was that the timeline would not allow for further collaboration with industry, thorugh mechanisms like aviation rulemaking committees before the new regulations are completed. “Our concern at ULA is that regulations don’t necessarily address the input we provided,” she said.

Advocates for the expedited regulatory review, though, noted that the deadline of Feb. 1 of next year is only for a notice of proposed rulemaking, not the final regulations themselves. “There is the potential for a lengthy comment period and reviews” after the publication of the proposed regulations, said Powers. “It’s left to be determined how long the actual process will take in its entirety.”

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NASA, Defense Department support giving space traffic management role to Commerce

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten testify at a June 22 House hearing on space traffic management. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — As the House prepares to take up a bill giving the Commerce Department new authorities for space traffic management, the leaders of NASA and U.S. Strategic Command offered their support for such a move.

At a rare joint hearing of the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee and space subcommittee of the House Science Committee June 22, officials said they backed the plan in Space Policy Directive 3 announced four days earlier to give Commerce Department authority to provide safety-related space situational awareness data to civil and commercial satellite operators.

“I believe transition is a good idea and I support the actions taken by the president on Monday to designate the Department of Commerce as the lead,” said U.S. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, head of Strategic Command. “It’s the right move and I commit to work with the administration, the Department of Commerce and the Congress to meet the president’s space traffic management goals.”

“This is important to NASA,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. “I look forward to working with this committee and implementing Space Policy Directive 2 and Space Policy Directive 3 from the president that gives these new activities to the Department of Commerce.”

In earlier studies of moving space traffic management responsibilities from the Department of Defense, the likely destination was the Department of Transportation, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. While both Bridenstine, as a member of Congress, and Hyten had previously supported moving that work to the FAA, they said they were satisfied with the direction in SPD-3 giving Commerce that responsibility.

“A couple of years ago, when I drafted that bill, my thought was we’ll put it at FAA, and we’ll take everything and put it at FAA,” Bridenstine said, referring to the American Space Renaissance Act that he drafted as a member of Congress in 2016. “It appears now that the right course of action, given the consensus that has been come to, is that it be at Commerce, and I fully support that. The key is, it needs to be done.”

Bridenstine added that he was not involved in the negotiations on SPD-3 because he was still a member of Congress at the time it was developed. Vice President Mike Pence announced the draft space traffic management policy that became SPD-3 in a speech April 16, a week before Bridenstine was sworn in as NASA administrator.

Hyten offered a similar view, when asked about a pilot program that the Air Force had been in discussions with the FAA about regarding space traffic management. “From the STRATCOM perspective, from the DOD perspective, bluntly, it doesn’t matter to me” which agency takes that responsibility, he said. “We need a civil agency that is doing that role.”

Giving space traffic management work to a civil agency like Commerce will free up Defense Department resources, he argued. After the 2009 collision between an Iridium satellite and a defunct Russian satellite, he said STRATCOM assigned about 100 personnel from other tasks to handle space traffic management work. That number has declined somewhat since, but he said “dozens and dozens of airmen” are still working on that today.

“Space traffic management should be somebody else’s job,” he said, noting that the Air Force would continue to collect space situational awareness data for both its own needs and to provide to Commerce for its space traffic management work.

Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, who also testified at the hearing, said transition planning was already in progress. That included, he said, soon sending “initial delegations out to Vandenberg, out to Omaha, to start learning more about the specifics that would be involved.” Vandenberg Air Force Base in California is home to the Joint Space Operations Center that tracks objects in orbit, while U.S. Strategic Command is headquartered at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha.

The goal, Ross, said, is for a “seamless transition” of space traffic management work. “It’s hard to predict exactly what the timeline would be, but it’s probably something more or less on the order of a year to make a seamless transition.”

One member, though, sought to slow down that work. “We’ve not made a decision — this body, Congress — as to where space situational awareness should be housed,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), ranking member of the space subcommittee. He argued that Congress needed to act to formally authorize such a move. “Secretary Ross, with all due respect, I don’t want the Department of Commerce to start making those plans.”

The House, though, will soon take up legislation to implement SPD-3. The House Science Committee announced, shortly after the hearing, plans for a markup session June 27 that will include the “American Space Situational Awareness and Framework for Entity Management Act,” or “American Space SAFE Management Act.”

That bill, according to a draft released by the committee, would implement elements of SPD-3, including requiring the Commerce Department to establish a civil space traffic management program within one year of the bill’s enactment. The bill would give the department the authority to provide such services to civil and commercial operators, including those outside the U.S., without a fee.

The legislation includes a number of related provisions, including giving NASA responsibilities for doing research and development work regarding space traffic management, and providing NASA facilities and personnel to Commerce on a reimbursable basis to carry out space traffic management work. The bill doesn’t mention, though, the use of Defense Department personnel and resources to carry out the work.

The bill authorizes $20 million a year from 2019 through 2023 for space traffic management work, and an additional $5 million a year in the same period for a separate pilot program on space traffic coordination.

Bera noted at the hearing that he was not opposed to giving space traffic management work to Commerce, only that Congress needed to weigh in. “The DOD has done a wonderful job monitoring,” he told Hyten. “It is time that we relieve you of some of that burden.”

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Hearing identifies wide range of causes for NASA cost and schedule woes

Overruns on major NASA projects like the James Webb Space Telescope could be blamed on a variety of root causes, members and witnesses said at a House hearing June 14. Credit: NASA/Desiree Stover

WASHINGTON — A House hearing on the reasons for cost and schedule problems with major NASA programs pointed blame at a wide variety of sources, from the tools used to track programs to the agency’s mindset to Congress itself.

In his opening statement at a hearing June 14 by the House space subcommittee on cost and schedule overruns, chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) suggested the problem with such overruns might be linked to the use of an approach called joint confidence level (JCL) for cost and schedule estimates.

“We are particularly interested in the NASA Inspector General’s recommendations on improvements with NASA’s cost estimating methodologies, especially if there is a need to continue using the JCL process or adopt another cost estimating technique,” he said.

Another key member offered similar concerns. “I am anxious to hear from our witnesses on whether cost and schedule models that are based on the past, traditional approaches to NASA project development are being updated to reflect the changes in today’s manufacturing, operations and technology environment,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the full committee. That could, she said, require additional research and development to update such models, or use of other tools.

However, in his testimony, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin focused on issues than the use of JCL techniques. The biggest challenges to cost and schedule, he said, included a “culture of optimism” at the agency and underestimating technical complexity.

That culture of optimism, he said, is rooted in NASA’s success in the Apollo program nearly a half-century ago. “NASA’s ability to overcome obstacles has become part of its can-do culture,” he said. “However, our work has shown that this attitude contributes to development of unrealistic plans and performance baselines, particularly with respect to its largest projects.”

That has created what Martin said is called the “Hubble psychology,” where cost and schedule is held secondary to ultimate mission success. “A too-big-to-fail mentality pervades agency thinking when it comes to NASA’s larger and most important missions,” he said.

“To meet cost and schedule goals, agency leaders must temper NASA’s historic culture of optimism by demanding more realistic cost and schedule estimates, well-defined and stable requirements and mature technologies early in project development,” he said.

Martin added, though, that Congress plays a role by providing “adequate and properly phased” funding. Other witnesses said that has been a problem with past and current projects, including the Space Launch System and Orion.

“A key issue is projects developed under a flatline budget,” said Dan Dumbacher, a former NASA deputy associate administrator for exploration systems who is now executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “A flatline budget requires program managers to realign the work as they go to stay under the budget cap, resulting in hard priority decisions and inefficiencies that explicitly break the program linkages across schedule and budget.”

Uncertainty about funding in general, including the use of continuing resolutions and threats of government shutdowns, also impairs project management, he argued. “The need to constantly have backup plans for various potential appropriations outcomes, different budget planning levels, along with flexible workforce blueprints, invites confusion and miscommunication.”

Other members of Congress blamed contractors for poor cost and schedule performance. “It is time for NASA’s contractors to deliver,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the full committee, in his opening statement. He noted that a NASA authorization bill approved by the committee in April would create a “watch list” of contractors cited for poor performance on contracts who could be restricted from competing on future NASA contracts.

Asked later in the hearing by Smith who would be candidates for that watch list, Cristina Chaplain, director of contracting and national security acquisitions at the Government Accountability Office, cited two examples. One is General Dynamics, the prime contractor on NASA’s Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment project, with the other being Harris Corporation, the prime contractor for the recently cancelled Radiation Budget Instrument. “Those are the more extreme cases” of contractor problems, she said.

Another company mentioned in the hearing was Northrop Grumman, the prime contractor for the James Webb Space Telescope. Problems with its development, including what Martin termed “avoidable human mistakes,” have led to delays in its development and the potential to breach its $8 billion cost cap. Smith said that Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Wes Bush will testify at a committee hearing next month on the status of JWST, likely after NASA delivers a report to Congress with updated cost and schedule estimates.

NASA will also soon provide a report to Congress on the estimated cost of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) required by the 2018 omnibus spending bill. That report was due to Congress last month, but Steve Jurczyk, NASA associate administrator, said that the report should be finalized and delivered in a couple of weeks.

Jurczyk added that a recent decision by the Canadian Space Agency not to participate in the WFIRST mission won’t affect the mission’s cost or scientific performance. “That decision was factored in to the project’s replanning” to bring the mission back within a cost cap of $3.2 billion, he said. “The level one science goals do not change and they will meet the requirements of the mission.”

Regardless of the cause, there was palpable frustration at the hearing about cost and schedule problems with NASA programs, which a recent GAO report indicated were worsening after several years of improvement. “This has simply got to stop,” said Babin. “We need performance, not excuses from the agency as well as providers.”

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The next space age

Space Policy Directive 2, signed by President Trump in May, is intended to enable commercial space regulatory reform. Congress now needs to act to enable some of those changes. Credit: Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead

Outer space is the last frontier of human exploration. Unfortunately, the glory days of landing men on the moon are now a distant memory. So too are the memories of watching space shuttles rumble to life and roar to space fading away.

That is poised to change and America is ready to lead the way.

Today, the private sector in the United States is on the cusp of unlocking the great economic potential of outer space. Innovators and entrepreneurs are investing in companies to mine asteroids, repair satellites and manufacture goods in outer space.

But regulatory uncertainty and burdensome bureaucracy threatens to push American investment and jobs overseas. It should surprise no one that government rules on testing, launches, reentry, live video, pictures and activities in space are badly outdated.

That’s why Congress and the Trump administration are pursuing aggressive updates to the existing system. As step one, President Donald Trump reconstituted the National Space Council and appointed Vice President Mike Pence to chair the group, which also includes cabinet officials, policy experts and voices from industry and academia.

One of Pence’s first initiatives, approved by the Council, was to “unlock new opportunities, new technologies and new sources of prosperity” by building a robust space economy.

The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which we introduced along with now-NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, accomplishes these goals. The bill empowers the Commerce Department to lead the promotion and regulation of private space activities so American industry can innovate, grow and compete. It creates a competitive regulatory environment so America becomes the country of choice for private sector space activities. All this while also protecting national security and fulfilling our Outer Space Treaty obligations.

Our bill creates a one-stop shop in the Office of the Secretary of Commerce for space activities, something that brings a sigh of relief to anyone who’s had to deal shuffle between federal offices to get multiple approvals for the same proposals.

Plus, the Commerce Department is best equipped — in both its longstanding mission and agency culture — to help entrepreneurs and innovators build companies and succeed in business. A perfect fit for the nascent space economy.

And the bill, along with its various provisions, is progressing. In April, the House unanimously passed the bill and sent it to the Senate. Recently, President Trump included much of the bill’s goals in Space Policy Directive-2. Coinciding with the directive, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross announced a major reorganization of his department that adopts our bill’s provisions. To ensure success, Secretary Ross is putting people, money and expertise into a new Space Policy Advancing Commercial Enterprise (SPACE) Administration and a restructured Office of Space Commerce. We applaud the president, the vice president and the secretary for carrying out this reorganization.

Congressional appropriators are also on board. The House Appropriations Committee more than doubled the Office of Space Commerce’s budget in fiscal year 2019 to $5 million.

The momentum is building for the bill, and the last stop before becoming law is the U.S. Senate. We need champions in the Senate to fight for the bill in committee and on the floor. Those individuals will have their names etched in history as the pivotal figures who put on the president’s desk a bipartisan, bicameral bill to invigorate the next space age and maintain America’s leadership in space. Let’s get it done.

Rep. Lamar Smith serves the 21st District of Texas and is the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. Rep. Brian Babin serves the 36th District of Texas and is the chairman of the Space Subcommittee of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

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Congress considering space traffic management legislation

Vice President Mike Pence announced the development of a draft space traffic management policy at the 34th Space Symposium in April. The final version of that policy could be issued at the National Space Council’s next meeting. Credit: Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews.

WASHINGTON — As the White House puts the finishing touches on a new space policy dealing with space traffic management issues, the House is considering legislation of its own on the topic.

During an appearance at a Secure World Foundation panel discussion on the subject June 11, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, said legislation was in development to address the issue of monitoring objects in orbit and providing warnings to satellite operators of potential collisions.

“We also have another bill coming up on some of the same subjects that you are going to be discussing here,” he said after mentioning the passage in April of another commercial space bill, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act.

Smith didn’t go into details about the bill, but Mike Mineiro, staff director of the space subcommittee, said later during the panel discussion that he is currently talking with various stakeholders about issues regarding space traffic management they would like to see in the bill.

“We’re here to listen and learn, and ultimately to provide the chairman and the members the best recommendations and advice for their consideration on how legislation should be crafted to address this policy area,” he said.

He added he didn’t know the timeline for developing the bill but said the committee would attempt to pass something this year. Smith is retiring from Congress at the end of the year.

The House’s plans for space traffic management legislation comes as the administration is expected to soon release a final version of a new space traffic management policy that Vice President Mike Pence announced April 16 at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. That policy could be announced at the next meeting of the National Space Council, scheduled for June 18 at the White House.

U.S. Air Force Col. John Giles, a senior policy advisor on the National Space Council, said at the panel discussion that he could not talk about the details of the policy at this stage of its development. “The policy itself has been presented but has not been signed by the president,” he said. “We look forward to that policy being approved. We look forward to implementing that policy.”

Pence, in his April speech, said that the policy would transfer responsibility for providing “a basic level of space situational awareness for public and private use” from the Defense Department to the Commerce Department. The Defense Department would retain the tracking resources currently used to compile the catalog of space objects, but the Commerce Department could augment that information with data from private organizations.

In an April 17 speech at the Space Symposium, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said his office was looking forward to taking on space traffic management (STM) responsibilities. “The department stands ready to work with other executive branch agencies, and the private sector, to develop an STM strategy that creates benchmark standards for the entire world,” he said.

Panelists at the June 11 event, asked to identify what they would like to see in any STM legislation, discussed the importance of sharing space situational awareness data from different sources.

Moriba Jah of the University of Texas at Austin used a web-based tool to illustrate how different data sources can provide varying positions of the same object, like a cubesat. “The inconsistency says we have work to do,” he said. “We need to bring all of these sources of information together, try to quantify what these inconsistencies are, and I think that’s how we start getting to some international collaboration and understanding of what’s going on in space.”

Legislation could also give the Commerce Department, or another agency, more authority to take actions to prevent collisions or other unsafe activities. “The whole game for space traffic management is somebody in charge of assigning and deconflicting orbits, and what authorities do they need to effectively do that,” said Brandt Pasco, an attorney and fellow at the Hudson Institute. “Only Congress can really establish the authorities and who should be in the lead.”

Whatever the White House and Congress do on space traffic management will need to be aligned with activities at the international level, including space sustainability guidelines developed by the UN’s Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space, other panelists advised.

“People don’t like to feel like the United States is coming in and waving the big stick and telling them what to do,” said Theresa Hitchens of the University of Maryland’s Center for International and Security Studies. Even though the U.S. is a leader in the field, she said, it must work with other countries to avoid the appearance of imposing standards and requirements on them.

“I would encourage all of the people that are involved in the drafting of legislation to become intimately familiar with those guidelines are that have been agreed to, so those particular ideas can be captured in our legislation,” said Diane Howard of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. “That’s a very good way that we can lead by example.”

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Bridenstine optimistic WFIRST will avoid cancellation

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks at an agency town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters May 17. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — As House appropriators approved a spending bill May 17 that partially restores funding for a NASA astrophysics mission slated for cancellation, the agency’s administrator said he was “90 percent” confident that the mission will continue.

Speaking at a town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters, Jim Bridenstine said that despite being targeted for cancellation in the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, he expected the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) to win funding from Congress and continue.

“The bottom line is that House appropriators are looking at funding it, and I would imagine that the Senate would probably follow,” he said. “I think WFIRST is going to continue to go forward. If I had a crystal ball, I’d say there’s a 90 percent chance of that.”

The administration’s request, issued in February prior to Bridenstine being confirmed as NASA administrator, offered no money for WFIRST, citing a desire to spend money previously planned for it on other programs. At the time, WFIRST was working to reduce its estimated cost to $3.2 billion after an independent review board last fall found that it was several hundred million dollars over that estimate.

House appropriators, in a report accompanying their commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill released May 16, instead offered $150 million for WFIRST. That is the same amount that the mission received in fiscal year 2018, but only half the $302 million NASA’s 2018 budget request estimated WFIRST would need in 2019.

Bridenstine said that NASA would have to work to keep WFIRST costs down, noting the overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope. “When we think about WFIRST, we need to think about how we got where we are with the James Webb and make sure we don’t repeat that,” he said. “I’ve got to be committed to preventing that from happening. If you know anything about this president, it’s on budget and under time.”

He hinted that he would support smaller missions over large strategic, or flagship, missions like JWST or WFIRST. “If we can do smaller missions with multiple satellites, then any one of them that runs over doesn’t clobber the decadal [survey] not only for this decade but also the next decade,” he said. He didn’t address how the scientific questions that, in many cases, require the large apertures or instrumentation associated with flagship missions could be done with smaller telescopes.

As Bridenstine spoke, the House Appropriations Committee marked up the CJS spending bill. The committee favorably reported the bill 32–19 after a five-hour session, without making major changes to the NASA provisions of the bill.

Only one amendment addressing NASA programs was debated during the session, and at the very end. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) introduced an amendment to secure $161 million for the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) Earth science mission, one of four targeted for cancellation in the administration’s request. He cited in particular the importance of the mission in monitoring the environment of the Chesapeake Bay region in his statement supporting PACE.

Ruppersberger, though, withdrew the amendment. “I just wanted to get it on the record that this is an important program for NASA,” he said. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, said he would work with Ruppersberger in the weeks ahead to address his concerns about funding the mission.

At the town hall meeting, Bridenstine spoke up in support of another Earth science mission targeted for cancellation in the 2019 budget request, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 3 instrument being developed for the International Space Station. “My understanding is that, in January, we’re going to launch it,” he said. “It’s not been cut. In fact, it’s going to be on orbit very, very soon.”

Bridenstine also reiterated that he believes the Earth is warming, with humans playing a significant role. “I don’t deny the consensus that the climate it changing. In fact, I fully believe and know that the climate is changing. I also know that we, human beings, are contributing to it in a major way” with carbon dioxide emissions. “That greenhouse gas is warming the planet. That is absolutely happening and we are responsible for it.”

Bridenstine made similar comments at his Senate confirmation hearing last November. “Human activity absolutely is a contributor to the climate change that we are currently seeing,” he said then, although he declined to say if it was the primary cause. He didn’t explicitly state at the town hall meeting that human activity was the primary cause for climate change, only a major one.

The appropriations bill that the House ultimately passes with have to be reconciled with a Senate bill yet to be developed. Senate appropriators are scheduled to hold a hearing on NASA’s budget proposal May 23 and take up their version of a CJS spending bill the week of June 11.

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House appropriations bill partially restores WFIRST funding

While the House bill rejects the administration’s proposal to cancel WFIRST, the bill provides less than half of the funding the agency projected the mission would need in 2019. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A spending bill to be marked up by the House Appropriations Committee would provide some funding for a NASA space telescope proposed for cancellation, but not necessarily enough to keep the mission on schedule.

The House Appropriations Committee released May 16 the report accompanying the spending bill approved by commerce, justice and science (CJS) committee May 9. The full committee is scheduled to mark up the bill May 17 and send it to the full House for later consideration. That report provides additional information on funding levels for agencies such as NASA covered by the bill, as well as additional policy provisions.

That reports provides funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which the administration proposed cancelling in its fiscal year 2019 budget request in February. The report offers $150 million for WFIRST, the same amount that the mission received in the final fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill in March. However, NASA’s 2018 budget proposal projected spending $302 million on the mission in 2019.

In the report, appropriators expressed concerns about the cost of the mission, citing a report by an independent review panel last year that estimated WFIRST was well above its proposed cost of $3.2 billion. NASA recently completed a replan of the mission, reducing some of its capabilities, in order to fit within a $3.2 billion cap.

“The Committee is concerned about the growing cost of the prime mission as noted by a recent independent examination,” the report stated, saying that NASA should take steps to optimize the mission’s efficiency by adopting lessons learned from other missions. It also endorsed one element of NASA’s revision of WFIRST, turning its coronagraph instrument into a technology demonstration.

It’s not clear what a reduced funding level like that proposed in the bill would do to WFIRST’s development, but it could potentially stretch out its development and increase its overall cost. At a meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board May 3, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said WFIRST was moving ahead on its current development path using the fiscal year 2018 funding the mission received despite uncertainty about its long-term future.

“We will have to see what we get for FY19 in an appropriation,” he said. “If it doesn’t match what’s required to meet the $3.2 billion, then we’ll have to make an adjustment, either descoping the mission or changing the cost cap.”

The report is silent on the fate of four Earth science programs also targeted for cancellation in the administration’s budget proposal. The report allocates $1.9 billion to Earth science programs, compared to the $1.78 billion in the request, but only mentions funding for one specific mission, a synthetic aperture radar mission being jointly developed with India’s space agency ISRO that was not proposed for cancellation in the request.

The bill does include funding for RESTORE-L, a satellite servicing mission under development by NASA that the 2019 budget proposal, as in 2018, sought to convert into a technology development effort at a lower level of funding. The report provides $130 million to RESTORE-L to allow it to proceed with a flight demonstration by 2021.

The committee made no changes to the funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch has been delayed by about a year, to May 2020, since the administration released its budget proposal in February. That delay could result in a breach of the mission’s $8 billion cost cap, although an independent assessment on the mission’s cost and schedule remains in progress.

Nonetheless, the committee criticized the delay. “The Committee is very concerned about the issues that are emerging at this late stage of JWST development and expects NASA to report to the Committee on a regular basis regarding efforts to ensure that this launch does not slip further,” it states. “These slips in the launch schedule are an enormous disappointment to the Committee.”

The committee offers full funding for many elements of NASA’s new exploration plans, including $150 million for its commercial low Earth orbit development effort, part of a longer-term effort to end NASA funding of the International Space Station in 2025. However, the report language suggests committee members want to continue operating ISS beyond that date, albeit under a different financial structure.

“The Committee reiterates that the International Space Station shall remain operational as long as it remains safe and operable,” the report states. “The Committee is supportive of the Administration’s efforts to find partners to pay for the future costs of the ISS.”

The committee is also worried about the two commercial crew vehicles under development, citing delays that threaten to push back crewed test flights to 2019. “The Committee remains concerned about the overall status of each of the programs and the number of top risks” as outlined in various reports and asks NASA to “notify the Committee immediately” of additional delays.

Spending for many of those exploration programs, including the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and other lunar exploration efforts, is restricted by the bill, which withholds 50 percent of their funding until NASA submits a multi-year plan for development of the Gateway and plans to land robotic and crewed spacecraft on the moon.

“The Committee believes that without firm goals and specific years by which to achieve those goals, programs could drift and languish,” the report states, adding that lunar missions should serve as “risk reduction activities” for later missions to Mars.

“The Committee believes that human and robotic exploration of Mars and other destinations in our Solar System and beyond must be the goals of NASA — that striving to go farther into space pushes NASA and its academic and industry partners to be bold and aggressive.”

The report includes details on a number of other initiatives supported by the bill at NASA, from $150 million for nuclear thermal propulsion technology to $25 million to support smallsat technology development. Following language in a NASA authorization bill approved by the House Science Committee last month, the report allocates $10 million for NASA to search for “technosignatures” such as radio transmissions as part of NASA’s broader astrobiology research effort. That would be the first funding for a NASA project linked to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, in a quarter century.

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House bill keeps Europa Clipper on track despite launch vehicle uncertainties

NASA’s Europa Clipper remains on track to launch as soon as 2022, thanks to funding from Congress well above the agency’s request. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A House funding bill approved by an appropriations subcommittee May 9 will help keep a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa on track for a launch in 2022.

The commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee approved a spending bill on a voice vote after a brief markup session that made no changes to the legislation, introduced a day earlier. The bill now goes to the full appropriations committee for consideration as soon as next week.

The bill provides more than $21.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2019. It specifically includes $545 million for Europa Clipper, a mission to orbit Jupiter and perform multiple flybys of the icy moon Europa, which scientists believe is potentially habitable. The bill also includes $195 million for a follow-on lander mission.

The bill specifies that both Europa Clipper and the lander spacecraft launch using the Space Launch System rocket, in 2022 and 2024, respectively, language included in previous years’ appropriations bills. NASA’s budget proposal offered only $264.7 million for Europa Clipper and nothing for the lander, and projected a 2025 launch for Europa Clipper using a commercially procured launch vehicle.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee and a vocal advocate of Europa exploration, highlighted the funding for the mission in his statement at the markup. “We’ve also increased funding to the planetary programs, including the vitally important Europa mission,” he said.

The funding that Europa Clipper has received in recent years, well above NASA requests, has allowed it to stay on track for the 2022 launch desired by Congress. “Since the start of this project we have been working towards the earliest possible launch opportunity,” said Barry Goldstein, Europa Clipper project manager, at a May 3 meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board. “We’ve been the fortunate recipient of significant funding.”

That funding, he said, is keeping the project on schedule for a June 2022 launch. The project is currently on a “glide path” towards a preliminary design review in August, with reviews of various instruments and other subsystems ongoing. That would allow the mission to enter Phase C of its development in November.

While work on the spacecraft and its instrument complement is going well, one outstanding issue remains the choice of launch vehicle, he said. Launching on the SLS allows the spacecraft to go directly to Jupiter, while other vehicles would require the use of gravity assists at Earth and Venus to get the spacecraft there, about five years later than on a direct trajectory.

For now, Goldstein said the project was designing the spacecraft to be able to use either approach. “We’ve been making sure that the spacecraft and the instruments were both compatible” with the direct trajectory and gravity-assist alternative, he said.

The introduction of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which performed its first launch in February, does not significantly change the debate. At the meeting, Goldstein showed performance capabilities, expressed in a metric known as characteristic energy, or C3, of several different launch vehicles, including both the Falcon Heavy and one with an additional kick stage. “Both of those are well below the C3 we need to get a direct trajectory to Jupiter with a vehicle of our mass,” he said.

He added that both the original Block 1 version of SLS, as well as the Block 1B with the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage, are the only vehicles with C3 values high enough to allow for a direct trajectory for the six-ton Europa Clipper spacecraft. The less-powerful Block 1 is still sufficient, he said, mitigating concerns about any delays in the development of the Block 1B. “We feel comfortable that both SLS variants would be able to take us on a direct trajectory,” he said.

Goldstein said later in the meeting that the spacecraft is being designed for the “more stressing” case of the gravity-assist trajectory, which will expose the spacecraft to more intense thermal conditions because of the required Venus flyby. A final decision on the launch vehicle won’t come until the project’s critical design review, scheduled for November 2019.

He cautioned that the continued progress on Europa Clipper is dependent on receiving sufficient funding at levels well above what the administration has proposed. That has not been a problem so far, though, thanks to support the mission has in Congress from Culberson.

At the May 9 markup, Culberson passed around a scientific paper with involving a new discovery about Europa and the existence of plumes that offer additional proof that the icy moon has a subsurface ocean of liquid water.

“It’s worth noting that the scientific journal Nature Astronomy just reported that the Galileo mission, back in 1997, flew through a water plume on Europa a thousand kilometers thick. So, the ocean of Europa is venting into outer space,” he said. “The science community has wanted to go there for years, Mr. Chairman, and this bill makes that happen.”

“Just in case I hadn’t seen it?” the full committee’s chairman, Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) asked, looking at the paper. “There it is,” Culberson responded.

As it turns out, the paper in question had not been published yet, and the journal had embargoed its release until May 14.

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House spending bill offers $21.5 billion for NASA in 2019

The House bill offers more than double the requested funding for the Europa Clipper mission and again directs NASA to launch the mission on an SLS by 2022. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A House appropriations bill released May 8 offers more than $21.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2019, a significant increase over both what the agency received in 2018 and what the White House proposed for 2019.

The bill, released by the House Appropriations Committee on the eve of its markup by the commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee, includes $21.546 billion for NASA. That is an increase of more than $1.65 billion over the administration’s request and $810 million more than what NASA received in the fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill passed in March.

The bill “continues NASA’s record-level funding, setting the agency on the trajectory to rise above and beyond the glory days of Apollo,” Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, said in a statement about the bill.

Spending for the various accounts within the NASA budget, such as science, exploration and aeronautics, is specified in the bill, but it includes few details about how funding should be apportioned within those accounts. Those details will likely wait until the report accompanying the bill is released when the full committee takes up the bill.

That means the bill is silent on several major programs proposed for cancellation by the administration in its budget request, including the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope and four Earth science missions, none of which are explicitly mentioned in the bill.

The bill also does not discuss potential cost overruns for the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch was delayed in March by about a year to May 2020. The bill instead leaves in place language about the mission’s $8 billion cost cap also found in previous year’s bills.

The bill, though, does specify funding for some programs. It calls for spending $545 million on the Europa Clipper mission and $195 million for a follow-on lander. NASA requested only $264.7 million for Europa Clipper and nothing for the lander.

NASA said in the budget proposal it was seeking to launch Europa Clipper in 2025 on a commercial vehicle, while the bill calls for the use of the Space Launch System and a launch by 2022. In its budget proposal, NASA estimated needing $565 million in 2019 to keep Europa Clipper on track for a 2022 launch but warned of “potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio” if funded at that level.

The bill includes $1.35 billion for Orion and $2.15 billion for SLS, the same funding those exploration programs received in 2018. NASA requested slightly less for each: $1.164 billion for Orion and $2.078 billion for SLS.

The bill fully funds the administration’s request for the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, at $504 million in 2019. In the committee’s statement about the bill, it said other elements of NASA’s lunar exploration programs were also fully funded, including $218 million in science for lunar missions, $116.5 million in advanced exploration systems for cislunar and lunar surface capabilities, and $150 million in the LEO and spaceflight operations account to begin the transition of the ISS to commercial alternatives. Those other spending levels were not included in the bill.

The same bill also includes funding for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, part of the Department of Commerce. The bill did not go into details about NOAA satellite programs, but the statement about the bill says it fully funds both the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite (GOES) and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) programs. NOAA requested $408.4 million for GOES and $878 million for JPSS, which now includes the Polar Follow-On program funding the third and fourth JPSS satellites that was previously a separate line item.

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NASA missions press ahead despite budget uncertainty

NASA is continuing work on the WFIRST mission as Congress debates whether to accept the administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 that proposes to cancel it. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — As House appropriators prepare to take up a spending bill that funds NASA, some programs proposed for cancellation are pressing ahead despite fiscal uncertainty that one scientist described as “psychologically damaging.”

The commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up its fiscal year 2019 spending bill May 9. That bill includes funding for NASA, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation and other agencies.

The markup comes nearly three months after the White House issued its budget proposal for 2019, which offered $19.9 billion for NASA but included the cancellation of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the next large astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. It also proposed to terminate the same four Earth science missions the administration sought to end, unsuccessfully, in its 2018 budget request.

Among those four Earth science projects is the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, a spacecraft planned for launch in 2022 that will study ocean and atmospheric conditions. While proposed for cancellation in 2018, Congress ultimately provided $147 million for the mission in the omnibus spending bill approved in March.

“We’re right on schedule. There’s been no slip,” said Lorraine Remer of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who serves as deputy science team lead for PACE, during a May 3 meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board here. “We’re moving forward.”

Despite the technical progress on the mission, though, she acknowledged that the budget uncertainty created by being targeted for cancellation in two straight years has taken a toll. “It’s psychologically damaging. It comes out and you go, ‘Oh, why am I doing this?’” she said of the budget proposals.

NASA’s response to the proposals, she said, has been to advise the team to “just work harder” while the budget process plays out. “I think that was a good direction, and we went forward and did that,” she said.

She warned, though, that continued budget uncertainly could affect other aspects of the mission’s development. “The agency is going to have difficulty committing to long-term planning here,” she said. “This is going to show up in terms of the ability to release competitions” for various aspects of the mission.

WFIRST, by comparison, is facing cancellation for the first time. The proposal to end the mission, still in its early stages of development, was surprising to much of the astronomical community as it came shortly after the project worked to reduce its estimated cost to $3.2 billion.

Congress, in the 2018 omnibus spending bill, provided $150 million for WFIRST, which many interpreted as a rebuke to the administration’s proposal even though Congress had yet to take up the 2019 budget. However, Congress passed the 2018 omnibus spending bill just days before NASA revealed another delay, and potential cost overrun, for JWST, complicating the future of WFIRST.

As with PACE, work on WFIRST is continuing for 2018 as the appropriations process for 2019 plays out in Congress. The mission’s next major review, for Key Decision Point B, is scheduled for May 22, which will allow it go into Phase B of its development.

“We were funded fully through FY ’18,” said Jeff Kruk, WFIRST project scientist, at the Space Studies Board meeting May 3. “We have to be ready to proceed should Congress decide to continue funding the mission. The only way we will meet the cost cap is if we stay on schedule.”

It’s unlikely Congress will complete work on its fiscal year 2019 spending bills by the time the fiscal year begins Oct. 1. As in past years, Congress will need to pass one or more stopgap spending bills, known as continuing resolutions (CRs), to fund the government at 2018 levels for weeks or months.

Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said at the meeting that the funding of WFIRST after Oct. 1 will depend on the cues it gets from Congress as the House and Senate mark up their separate spending bills.

“We are given some latitude on how to allocate the funding that is given to us” under a CR, he said. “We will take into account the markups that happen this summer in the appropriations committees. If those markups indicate that WFIRST is highly likely to be in the ’19 appropriation, we will request funding to continue WFIRST under a CR.” That would not be the case, he added, if the House and Senate signal an unwillingness to fund the mission.

“Unfortunately, WFIRST is now in a similar situation to PACE,” he added. “The direction I have given the project is that we have received our FY ’18 appropriation, and that their direction is to spend it working as hard and as fast as they can to stay on the path that leads to staying within the cost cap.”

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FAA reauthorization bill boosts commercial space office

The FAA bill included language establishing an Office of Spaceports within the FAA’s commercial space transportation office whose duties would include ways of supporting investment in commercial launch sites like Virginia’s Mid Atlantic Regional Spaceport. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — A reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration passed by the House April 27 includes several provisions intended to support its commercial spaceflight activities, including a major increase in authorized spending levels.

The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 was approved by the House on a 393–13 vote after a day and a half of debate on the bill and dozens of amendments.

The bill primarily deals with the FAA’s role in regulating commercial aviation. Several amendments approved by the House during its debate, though, involve the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, and its role in regulating commercial spaceflight.

A manager’s amendment introduced by Rep. Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, and passed on a voice vote April 26 included among its provisions a sizable increase in authorized funding levels for AST. The bill raises AST’s authorized budget from its 2018 level of just under $22.6 million to more than $33 million in 2019, with further increases to nearly $76 million by 2023.

The amendment is the latest effort to increase the funding profile of the office, which has received modest budget increases in the last few years even as the office’s workload has grown significantly with higher launch rates and a growing number of vehicles under development. However, appropriators are not bound to fund the office, or other parts of the FAA, at levels stated in the bill.

The same amendment also addresses an issue with aircraft that have experimental licenses but are used in spaceflight operations. The bill would allow such aircraft to perform commercial space transportation “support” flights, such as for training or hardware tests, for hire.

Those flights, according to the amendment, will be required to take place from an FAA-licensed spaceport, and those who fly would have to provide their informed consent that they understand the risks of flying on an aircraft that has an experimental license.

Another section of the same amendment directs the head of AST, the associate administrator for commercial space transportation, to be the “primary liaison” between the commercial space transportation industry and the rest of the FAA. That is intended to promote better coordination with the FAA’s air traffic organization on airspace access for launches and reentries.

A separate amendment sponsored by several members from Florida, Maryland and Virginia would establish an “Office of Spaceports” within AST to deal with issues associated with commercial launch sites. The office’s responsibilities would include assisting spaceport licensing activities and developing policies to support infrastructure investment in those facilities.

The amendment requires one report by the Secretary of Transportation evaluating demand for spaceports and needs for infrastructure investment for commercial spaceports. It also requires a report by the Government Accountability Office assessing ways to support spaceport investments, including through the use of the FAA’s airport improvement program.

“State spaceports have become increasingly important elements of our national space launch infrastructure,” said Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-Va.), the lead sponsor of the amendment, in comments on the House floor April 26. “This amendment will help recognize the important role of these spaceports.”

“This amendment will strengthen the nation’s competitiveness in this nascent industry and offer us a better understanding of how we can maintain a robust and resilient network of space transportation infrastructure,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the only other member to discuss the amendment on the House floor. The House passed the amendment on a voice vote.

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House passes commercial space regulatory bill

The House bill would give the Office of Space Commerce the ability to oversee “non-traditional” commercial space activities, like satellite servicing, not licensed today by other agencies. Credit: Orbital ATK

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives approved legislation April 24 that would reform commercial remote sensing regulation and create a licensing regime for “non-traditional” commercial space activities.

The House approved on a voice vote H.R. 2809, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, after about 25 minutes of debate on the House floor during which no members spoke in opposition to the bill.

The bill, which cleared the House Science Committee last June, is intended to both streamline the existing regulations for licensing of commercial remote sensing systems and provide a minimalistic licensing system for other commercial space activities not already regulated by other agencies in order to comply with the “authorization and continuing supervision” requirements of the Outer Space Treaty.

“Today we give space exploration a booster rocket in the form of H.R. 2809,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, said on the House floor. The bill, he claimed, removed uncertainty regarding who would regulate emerging commercial space applications, ranging from satellite servicing to lunar landers, that don’t clearly fall into areas already overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration, Federal Communications Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which today license launches, satellite communications and commercial remote sensing, respectively.

“This uncertainty has cramped capital formation and innovation, and has driven American companies overseas,” he argued. “The Space Commerce Act remedies this situation by establishing a new, novel legal and policy framework that unleashes American free enterprise and business, assures conformity with Outer Space Treaty obligations and guarantees that the U.S. will lead the world in commercial space activities throughout the 21st century.”

The bill gives the Office of Space Commerce within the Department of Commerce the authority to issue “certifications” for space objects not otherwise licensed by the FAA or the FCC. Companies would provide basic information about their spacecraft, including an attestation that it is not a weapon of mass destruction, and the office would have 90 days to review the application.

The bill also reforms commercial remote sensing regulations, moving licensing of those spacecraft from NOAA’s Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs office to the Office of Space Commerce. It requires a 90-day review of license applications, versus the 120 days under current regulations, with automatic approval of applications should the office not make a determination at the end of that 90-day period.

While NOAA has, in recent years, worked to decrease the average commercial remote sensing licensing review time, companies have complained about long delays on individual applications and a lack of insight into the license review process, issues the bill seeks to address. The bill “ensures U.S. industry receives a timely and transparent determination on applications,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House space subcommittee.

Concerns about the ability of national security agencies to weigh in on remote sensing applications led to some changes in the bill after its markup last June. One provision added to the bill allows the president to extend the 90-day review period for such applications by 60 days “to further evaluate the national security implications of the application,” provided the president notifies relevant congressional committees. The bill allows for only one such 60-day extension.

“Since the markup, I was pleased to see additions to the bill which ensure the proper balance with the defense community to ensure the Department of Defense has the proper input into remote sensing applications,” said Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) during the debate on the House floor.

While the bill easily cleared the House, its future is less certain. The Senate has been working on its own commercial space bill, led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate space subcommittee. That bill is not expected to be identical in scope or content to the House bill.

The National Space Council also approved a set of recommendations for commercial space regulation at its Feb. 21 meeting. While they include changes similar to that in the House bill, like consolidating regulation within the Office of Space Commerce and giving that office oversight of non-traditional commercial space activities, it also calls on the department to develop its own legislative proposal for enacting those changes.

“There are elements of the existing legislation on the Hill that the administration is supportive of,” said James Uthmeier, senior advisor to the Secretary of Commerce, during an April 3 meeting of NOAA’s Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing. “There are things with that proposed legislation that pretty much everybody in this room would admit needs some work.”

Some House members, while backing this bill, said they hoped to see changes in it should it works its way through the Senate. “There are several aspects of H.R. 2809 that deserve further discussion,” said Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), ranking member of the space subcommittee. Those aspects, he said, include adequate reviews by government agencies of license applications and adherence to planetary protection guidelines by commercial ventures where relevant.

Bera and Perlmutter also wanted to review whether the Office of Space Commerce, which has only a few staff members, was the right home for the licensing authority granted in the bill. “I hope this discussion continues and we reach a consensus as we continue through the legislative process with the Senate,” Perlmutter said.

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House committee approved revised NASA authorization bill

The House Science Committee approved a revised version of a NASA authorization bill April 17 with more funding for Earth science, among other changes.

COLORADO SPRINGS — The House Science Committee, after some unusual last-minute drama, approved a NASA authorization bill April 17 that offers more support to the agency’s Earth science program.

The committee voted 26–7 to approve H.R. 5503, the NASA Authorization Act of 2018. The bill approved by the committee was an amended version of the one introduced April 13, authorizing funding for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 and including a number of policy provisions.

The markup of the bill, though, was interrupted by a recess — originally planned to last just five minutes but extending for more than a half-hour — where Republican and Democratic leaders of the committee privately discussed changes in the bill. When the markup session resumed, the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), expressed her displeasure on how the “deeply flawed” bill was developed.

Johnson, in her remarks, criticized the content of the bill, including both Earth science cuts and its endorsement of administration’s space exploration plans without any hearings by the committee to discuss them. She also noted language in the bill that authorizes funding to search for “technosignatures” of alien life. “The majority slashes funding for programs that help humans here on Earth, and instead prioritizes spending money to find space aliens,” she said.

Her criticism extended to how the bill was developed. “As problematic as the substance of the bill is, the process that brought us here today is just as problematic,” she said. Drafting of the bill started a couple weeks ago, she said, and the committee’s Republican staff provided a “significantly different” version of the bill from earlier drafts on April 12.

“It came with an ultimatum: in essence, if I didn’t agree to support the bill as written, then the chairman would notice the markup on April 13th with a different, punitive version of the bill,” she said, claiming that was, in fact, what happened. “I really don’t think vindictiveness is a good basis for legislating.”

Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said that Republican and Democratic staff were discussing the bill weeks ago, including a draft provided April 2. The markup was postponed from April 12, he said, to allow talks on the bill to continue. “The majority staff, in my view, has acted in good faith and has been in discussions on the bill with the minority on a regular basis,” he said.

“I realize the minority has not had as much time as they would have liked,” he said. “On the other hand, we have complied with all requirements, legislative and otherwise.”

Shortly after those discussions, the committee took up an amendment by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) that added $471 million to Earth science authorized funding in 2019, bringing it up to the same level as 2018. “This was not an easy amendment for the majority to swallow,” Smith said, but said he would support it in order to “increase the prospects of this NASA bill going forward on the floor.” The committee approved the amendment on a 27–5 vote.

The committee also passed several other amendments, including a manager’s amendment by space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), which he said included some feedback from the bill received after its April 13 introduction. That amendment included language directing NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the Space Launch System, which was funded in the 2018 omnibus appropriations bill, and a second Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage for the SLS.

The manager’s amendment also replaced language in the original bill directing NASA to use commercial space products and in-space infrastructure with language instead requiring NASA to prepare a report on the potential use of such commercial capabilities.

Other amendments approved by the committee included provisions on security management for foreign national access to NASA facilities, federal-state partnerships involving NASA, a reaffirmation of the risks of orbital debris, a cost analysis of using highly enriched uranium for space applications and language prioritizing human missions to Mars by 2033.

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NASA authorization bill increases emphasis on commercial partnerships

A NASA authorization act to be marked up by the House Science Committee April 17 directs NASA to work more closely with the private sector in areas ranging from Earth science to space exploration.

WASHINGTON — A NASA authorization bill to be considered by the House next week would direct NASA to work more closely with commercial partners in areas ranging from Earth observation to deep space exploration.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2018, introduced by Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House space subcommittee, was released April 13. The legislation is scheduled to be marked up by the full House Science Committee on April 17.

The bill authorizes $20.7 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2018, matching what was included for NASA in the omnibus appropriations bill enacted in March. It authorizes an identical amount for fiscal year 2019, although apportioned somewhat differently among NASA’s various programs, including more for exploration systems and planetary science and less for Earth science.

Most of the bill is devoted to various policy provisions. One part of the bill, titled “Commercial,” includes a number of sections directing NASA to make use of commercial capabilities in future exploration missions.

“In planning and carrying out space exploration missions, the Administrator shall, to the greatest extent practicable, prioritize the acquisition and use of space products provided by a United States commercial provider or through a public-private partnership with a United States commercial provider,” one section of the bill states. It defines “space products” as a tangible good, such as propellant or water, that is both required for space exploration activities and “originates in outer space.”

Another section of the bill includes similar language calling for the use of “commercial in-space infrastructure” to support exploration missions. Such infrastructure is specifically defined as being located more than 320,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface, ruling out facilities in Earth orbit but including those at the Earth-Moon L-1 Lagrange point, approximately 325,000 kilometers from the Earth, as well as on or in orbit around the moon.

The bill’s commercial language is not limited to space systems. The U.S., the bill states, “should foster the development of U.S. private sector remote sensing capabilities and analyses that can satisfy the public interest in long-term continuous collection of medium-resolution land remote sensing data.”

To that end, the bill would prevent NASA from spending money on a Landsat 11 or subsequent systems “until the Administrator has completed a study assessing which aspects of Landsat system observations and associated science requirements can be provided by purchasing data from the private sector or through public-private partnerships.” It’s not clear if the “Landsat 11” reference is a typo since Landsat 9 is still under construction for a launch no earlier than late 2020.

The bill, though, does not take a strong position on the administration’s proposal, in its fiscal year 2019 budget request, to end NASA funding of the International Space Station in the mid-2020s and rely on commercial capabilities in low Earth orbit instead. The bill suggests that Congress did receive an ISS transition report, as required by a 2017 NASA authorization bill, but that members need more information before endorsing a particular approach.

“The plans laid out in the ISS transition report are conditionally flexible and require feedback to inform next steps,” the bill states. “In addition, the feasibility of ending direct NASA support for ISS operations by the end of fiscal year 2024 is dependent on many factors, some of which are indeterminate until the Administration carries out the initial phases of the ISS transition plan.”

The bill, rather than backing a particular ISS transition approach, instead instructs NASA to provide Congress with quarterly briefings “on the status of, and all progress, changes, and other developments related to carrying out the plans in the ISS transition report.”

The bill also casts a skeptical eye on NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which the administration sought to cancel in the 2019 budget request. The bill does not formally endorse that plan, but notes that, without a lifecycle cost estimate, “Congress has insufficient information to judge whether or not WFIRST should be authorized to proceed in fiscal year 2019.”

Rather than make a decision on WFIRST, it instead sets a $3.2 billion cost cap on the mission, the same cost that NASA recently revised the mission to fit within. It also directs NASA not to procure a launch vehicle for WFIRST until after the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Other sections of the bill deal with topics ranging from spacesuit development to space nuclear power to endorsing a space telescope like the proposed Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) mission to meet requirements established in previous bills to detect smaller near Earth asteroids.

Another provision of the bill backs the search for “technosignatures” as part of the agency’s broader efforts to look for life in the universe, authorizing $10 million in 2018 and 2019 for that work. Such signatures would include radio transmissions, and those searches could be done in partnership with the private sector and philanthropic organizations. Such groups are the only ones that have done those searches after Congress cancelled a search for extraterrestrial intelligence effort run by NASA a quarter-century ago.

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House committee advances two space bills

One bill approved by the House Science Committee would give the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation the authority to license “space support vehicles” like Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo airplane, seen here carrying its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, for research and training applications. Credit: Virgin Galactic

WASHINGTON — The House Science Committee favorably reported bills March 22 that would recognize a NASA center as a center of excellence in rocket propulsion and would resolve a commercial space regulatory issue.

The committee approved H.R. 5345, the American Leadership in Space Technology and Advanced Rocketry (ALSTAR) Act, and H.R. 5346, the Commercial Space Support Vehicle Act, on voice votes and with no opposition.

“Together, the two bills help ensure that America remains competitive in space,” Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, in opening comments during the brief markup session.

H.R. 5345 includes a “sense of Congress” resolution that recognizes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center as the agency’s “lead center for rocket propulsion and is essential to sustaining and promoting U.S. leadership in rocket propulsion and developing the next generation of rocket propulsion capabilities.”

The bill requires the center to “provide national leadership in rocket propulsion” through such initiatives as collaborating with companies and universities on propulsion research and monitoring ongoing work in both the public and private sectors “to develop and promote a strong, healthy rocket propulsion industrial base.” The bill does not give NASA any specific oversight of such work, though, and does not authorize any funding for those activities.

“Rocket propulsion is the foundational capability for everything we do in space,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), sponsor of H.R. 5345, in a statement at the hearing. Brooks’ district includes Marshall.

“Over the last several years, America has witnessed the beginnings of a resurgence in the rocket propulsion industry,” he said. “As these traditional and emerging actors continue to move forward, it is important that we support healthy cooperation and communication between these companies and the federal government to ensure that America retains a robust and healthy rocket propulsion industry.”

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) co-sponsored the bill. “I wanted to encourage this network that we have this is really second-to-none in the world, and we’ve got to keep it that way,” he said of the American rocket propulsion industry. “So, for me, co-sponsoring this bill was very easy.”

H.R. 5346 deals with what are known as “space support vehicles,” which are aircraft that serve as either part of launch systems or provide spaceflight training or other research activities. They include aircraft such as Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo and Stratolaunch System’s giant aircraft under development, which are intended to serve as air-launch platforms, as well as F-104 aircraft operated by Starfighters Aerospace for high-performance training and research.

Under the bill, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation would have the ability to issue licenses and experimental permits for such vehicles, effective at the beginning of March 2019.

Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) sponsored the bill, noting in his comments at the markup a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in November 2016 that examined the issue of space support vehicles and their regulatory requirements. He cited the use of F-104 aircraft for training; Starfighters Aerospace operates out of the Kennedy Space Center’s Shuttle Landing Facility, in his district. Virgin Galactic also submitted for the record a letter of support for the bill.

“The Commercial Space Support Vehicle Act provides an appropriate regulatory approach by authorizing the Secretary of Transportation to develop regulations by March 1st, 2019, allowing licensed space support flights,” he said.

Both bills go to the full House for consideration at a later, unspecified date.

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House members call on Senate to confirm Bridenstine as NASA administrator

More than 60 House members are calling on the Senate to confirm Jim Bridenstine, seen here at a November hearing, as NASA administrator. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — A letter signed by more than 60 House members calls on the Senate to advance the stalled nomination of fellow congressman Jim Bridenstine to be NASA administrator.

In the March 20 letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), the House members, led by space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), argued that the impending retirement of Robert Lightfoot as the agency’s acting administrator “makes it all the more critical” the Senate act on the nomination.

“It would be a travesty to America’s space program for it to remain leaderless at this critical time when America’s space industry is making rapid advances that will set the course of space leadership for decades to come,” the House members state in the letter. “This is why it is vitally important that the Senate take up and approve Jim Bridenstine’s nomination.”

The letter highlights Bridenstine’s qualifications to lead the agency and argues that NASA needs a permanent leader in place to handle key decisions about exploration plans and the future of the International Space Station, as outlined in the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget request and Space Policy Directive 1, signed by President Trump in December.

“Now is not the time to leave NASA rudderless,” the letter states. “We urge the Senate to confirm Jim Bridenstine swiftly and allow him to lead the world’s premier space agency into the next age of space exploration.”

The letter is signed by 61 members, including every Republican on the House Science Committee and House Armed Services Committee. Bridenstine, a Republican congressman from Oklahoma, serves on those committees. About a dozen Democrats signed the letter, including Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), ranking member of the strategic forces subcommittee of the Armed Services Committee; and Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.), a member of the House Science Committee who has openly supported Bridenstine’s nomination.

While the letter was addressed to the leadership of the House and Senate, the intended recipient is arguably Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who expressed concerns about the nomination when it was first announced in September and has not formally endorsed it. With the Senate’s 49 Democrats all opposed to the nomination, and with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) still absent from the Senate due to cancer treatments, the nomination lacks the minimum of 50 votes needed for confirmation.

A spokesperson for Rubio did not respond to a request for comment March 19 regarding whether the senator would back Bridenstine’s nomination.

Democratic members of the Senate remain opposed to Bridenstine’s nomination. “The White House needs to nominate a space professional for NASA administrator who will actually garner strong bipartisan support,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said in a March 12 statement after Lightfoot announced his plans to resign from the agency at the end of April. “The current nominee doesn’t have the votes.”

“I think all of us wish that the search for his replacement was not as contentious as it has been,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said of finding a successor to Lightfoot in a March 15 speech at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium. “I’m hopeful that we will resolve this as soon as possible because it’s very important that NASA have an administrator.”

House letter to Senate about Bridenstine nomination by Jeff Foust on Scribd

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Negotiations continue on final 2018 omnibus spending bill

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said March 15 he’s working to convince House appropriations to accept spending levels from a Senate bill for several NASA programs. Credit: AAS webcast

GREENBELT, Md. — With a stopgap spending bill set to expire in just over a week, House and Senate appropriators are continuing to negotiate provisions of an omnibus bill, including funding levels for some NASA programs.

In a speech at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium here March 15, Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said he was fighting to restore funding for Earth science and technology demonstration programs targeted for cancellation in the administration’s original 2018 budget request.

“We’re in the process of translating the overall numbers into specific budgets for specific agencies,” he said. “We’re doing that right now.”

Van Hollen indicated negotiations were ongoing with House appropriators to reconcile differences between their respective appropriations bills. Those final numbers would need to fit within overall spending levels set as part of a recently-passed two-year budget agreement. That work needs to be done, and the resulting omnibus appropriations bill passed, before the current continuing resolution funding the government expires March 23.

The House had been expected to introduce that omnibus spending bill this week but has not yet done so. “We’re still waiting to see what they put together and we’re still trying to negotiate a lot of these numbers,” he said.

Van Hollen said he had “preliminary good news” in the form of the Senate spending bill. That included restoring funding for several NASA Earth science missions targeted for cancellation in the administration’s 2018 budget request. That included the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission and the Earth observing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory spacecraft.

“We’re trying to work those out,” he said of those missions, which were not explicitly funded in the House bill. “I’m optimistic, but again, it ain’t over until it’s over.”

He said he was also advocating for Restore-L, a satellite servicing mission that the administration sought to restructure into a technology development effort in both the fiscal year 2018 budget request and the new fiscal year 2019 budget request released last month. “We have been able to restore, in the Senate bill, funding for Restore-L,” he said, with $137 million allocated for it. The House supports the mission but has not explicitly funded it, and Van Hollen said he’s seeking to win funding for it in the final bill.

He also expressed support for NASA’s education program, which the administration has sought to shut down. “It is so important that we have a robust NASA education budget so that they can reach out to the next generations of scientists,” he said. Both the House and Senate bills, he noted, included funding for the program, at slightly different levels.

Van Hollen asked conference attendees to lobby House appropriators on NASA funding. “Please call them and ask them to accept the Senate numbers on the NASA budget,” he said. One exception, he said, was support for NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, which he said is slightly stronger in the House bill than the Senate one.

Besides discussing the budget, Van Hollen used the speech to thank NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who announced March 12 plans to retire at the end of April. “He’s had a long and distinguished career at NASA, and we all wish him very well in his next adventures,” he said.

The administration’s nominee for NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine, is stalled in the Senate because Van Hollen and his fellow Democratic members are opposed to him, as well as, reportedly, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).

“I think all of us wish that the search for his replacement was not as contentious as it has been,” Van Hollen said of the debate regarding Bridenstine’s nomination. “I’m hopeful that we will resolve this as soon as possible because it’s very important that NASA have an administrator.”

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Congressmen criticize stalled NASA administrator nomination

Members of the House Science Committee criticized the Senate during a NASA budget hearing March 7 for not moving to confirm Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), seen here at a November 2017 confirmation hearing, as NASA administrator. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

WASHINGTON — Several members of the House Science Committee used a hearing on NASA’s latest budget proposal March 7 to criticize the Senate for not acting on the nomination of one of their colleagues to lead the agency.

Testifying before the House space subcommittee on NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal was Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, who has led the agency on an interim basis for more than 13 months. That is the longest NASA has been led by an acting administrator in the agency’s nearly 60-year history.

The White House nominated Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who serves on the space subcommittee, in September to be administrator. The Senate Commerce Committee advanced his nomination to the full Senate on a party-line vote in November. That process was repeated in January when the Senate returned the nomination under its rules, and the administration resubmitted it.

The full Senate has yet to take up the nomination. Congressional sources say that Bridenstine’s nomination lacks the needed 50 votes for passage. All 49 Senate Democrats are opposed to the nomination, as is reportedly Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who stated concerns about the nomination when it was announced in September but has not recently commented on it. With Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has also been said to be skeptical of the nomination, still absent from the Senate because of cancer treatment, there are only 49 yes votes.

Despite the partisan divide, one committee member said that failure of the Senate to take up the nomination was not one of Republicans versus Democrats. “This is not, however, a product of partisanship,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) during the hearing.

“This is the product of a couple of senators who are bullheaded and a couple of senators who are basically watching out for their own little domain rather than what’s good for the overall country,” he said, arguring that those unnamed senators “demonstrated an arrogance that is unacceptable.”

Other members of the committee also expressed their disappointment on a lack of action on Bridenstine’s nomination, although not quite as stridently. “I hope that the next time we’re sitting here Administrator Bridenstine will be in the chair,” said Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) “It’s an embarrassment to the process that that hasn’t happened yet.”

“In the environment we work in, the resources that the agency needs in the long term, having a director nominated and confirmed by the United States Senate from the administration is critically important,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)

Even a Democratic member of the committee expressed support for Bridenstine’s nomination. “Is it time to have somebody permanent in that position? Is it hard as an acting administrator to move the agency forward?” asked Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.). Perlmutter is one of the few Democratic members of Congress to publicly support Bridenstine’s nomination.

Lightfoot said that he hasn’t experienced problems working with the administration despite leading the agency on an interim basis. “For the past year I’ve had no trouble having access to the people I need to have access to,” he said.

That included, he said, representing NASA on the National Space Council at its two public meetings since being reestablished last summer. “I haven’t had to sit in the back row. I’ve sat right at the table.”

However, he acknowledged the agency would benefit from having a permanent administrator. “It is always of value to have the person the president wants in this position,” he said. “That would be important for us all from that standpoint.”

The criticism that committee members expressed about the stalled nomination did not extend to Lightfoot. “You have been an adequate acting administrator,” Banks told Lightfoot, while Lucas said he had done “an outstanding job.”

That extended stint as acting administrator has also earned Lightfoot a place in the history books. “I’d like to congratulate you, Mr. Lightfoot, on once again today setting a new record as the longest serving acting director of NASA,” said Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) “I hope you’ll have an extension of that record tomorrow.”

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House members question balance of NASA programs in 2019 budget proposal

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot testifies at a House Science Committee hearing on NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal March 7. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Members of the House space subcommittee raised concerns about elements of NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal during a March 7 hearing, from the cancellation of a space telescope to restructuring of the agency’s technology programs.

At the hearing by the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot defended the budget proposal released last month, arguing that it supports human spaceflight efforts as well as science and aeronautics.

“I think we still have a very balanced budget when you look across the multi-mission opportunities in science and aeronautics and technology, along with the exploration activity,” Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do here is focus on a long-term plan with our eye on Mars, ultimately.”

Lightfoot’s comment came in response to a question from ranking member Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who thought the budget proposal focused too much on human exploration efforts. “There are some areas of concern of the overweight focus just on exploration,” he said. “None of us is going to argue that exploration is not important, but we also want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the space science, the space technology, the aeronautics and education.”

A particular area of concern for Bera was the plan in the budget proposal to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, the next flagship astrophysics missions at NASA after the James Webb Space Telescope. WFIRST, he noted, was the top priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey, where astronomers prioritized mission concepts for the next decade.

“The decadal survey has served us well, and not looking at this scientific-based prioritization and moving away from that can certainty set a dangerous precedent,” Bera said.

Lightfoot tried to downplay the effects of the proposed cancellation on astrophysics research. Asked later in the hearing by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) about the consequences of not flying WFIRST, Lightfoot suggested other missions, including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) scheduled to launch in April, could fill in.

“We’re counting on TESS and James Webb to fill the astrophysics needs for quite a bit of time,” he said, but acknowledged there would be a “gap” in data. “To the astrophysics community, that’s a challenge from a scientific perspective.”

Others questioned plans to reorganize NASA’s management of space technology efforts, which would effectively fold the Space Technology Mission Directorate into the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, focusing more technology research on exploration needs.

Details of how that transition will take shape are still being developed in the agency, Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do is make sure our technologies that we’re working on are truly aligned with the things we’re trying to do at the moon and ultimately at Mars,” he said.

Some members, though, worried this reorganization would take resources away from space technology activities not associated with exploration, or cut technology funding in general to support operations. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) entered into the record a letter from Bobby Braun, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado and a former NASA chief technologist, critical of the proposed reorganization.

Braun, in the letter, called the reorganization “among the most devastating long-term aspects proposed” in the budget request. “Past history has shown that large development programs and technology development activities cannot and should not exist together, as a small hiccup in the development programs eats the budget of the basic research and technology advancement needed to accomplish more in space.”

Lightfoot defended the change, even while acknowledging that the new exploration research and technology program will focus on “long poles” for human missions to Mars. “I think we still have a very balanced portfolio going forward.”

Human spaceflight issues

Members also asked about the initiative in the budget proposal to end NASA funding of the International Space Station in 2025 while developing commercial capabilities in low Earth orbit. The lack of details about those plans, though, bothered some.

“I remain open to new ideas relative to future operations, but obviously we need a detailed and realistic, sustainable plan for any ISS transition in the future,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee. “NASA will need to do a better job articulating this plan as we move forward.”

Babin also reminded Lightfoot that NASA had yet to deliver both the ISS transition plan and an exploration roadmap required by last year’s NASA authorization bill. Those documents were supposed to be delivered to Congress last December. Lightfoot later said that the exploration roadmap should be delivered by the end of the month.

Other members noted the absence of funding in the budget proposal for a second mobile launch platform for the Space Launch System. NASA officials said they were considering seeking funding for it last year as a means of closing the gap between the first and second SLS missions caused by required modifications to the existing platform to accommodate the larger version of SLS that will be used on the second and subsequent missions.

“We took a hard look at that,” Lightfoot said. A second platform, he said, could move up the date of the first crewed Orion mission from 2023 to 2022, but that it’s a “pretty expensive” project. “We had the discussion, we had the debate, and the answer came back we should stick with the plan that we’ve got.”

Babin returned to the issue later in the hearing, noting that Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana had talked about it with him while in Florida for last month’s meeting of the National Space Council. “It sure sounded like it would absolutely be a great thing if we could get a second one,” he said.

Lightfoot said that part of the expense of a second launch platform involved also purchasing and human rating a second Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and using it with the existing mobile launch platform for a second SLS mission while the new mobile launcher, for the Block 1B versions of SLS, is built. That would allow for a crewed launch sooner than modifying the platform to accommodate the larger SLS.

Lightfoot also confirmed that NASA is studying flying astronauts on commercial crew test flights as a contingency measure should Boeing and SpaceX experience further delays in the development of their vehicles. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said last month that option was being considered since additional Soyuz spacecraft will not be available after the fall of 2019.

“We are looking at several options” for maintaining access to the ISS, Lightfoot said, but didn’t disclose the other options beyond flying crews on test flights. “We’re still confident that our commercial providers are going to provide us the capability we need, and we’re just looking at contingencies in case.”

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Smith disappointed with lack of progress on SLS and Orion

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, warned of “ebbing” confidence in NASA and its contractors given the latest delays in the first flight of the Space Launch System. Credit: C-SPAN

WASHINGTON — A day after NASA announced a new launch date for the first flight of the Space Launch System, the chairman of the House Science Committee said he found the development delays “disappointing” and warned further problems could undermine congressional support.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), in an opening statement at a Nov. 9 hearing by the space subcommittee on NASA’s exploration systems, said that additional delays for the SLS and the Orion crew vehicle could build support for unspecified alternatives, jeopardizing the overall program.

“Congress needs to have confidence in NASA and the exploration systems contractors, which I don’t believe we have now. That confidence is ebbing,” he said. “If it slips much further, NASA and its contractors will have a hard time regaining their credibility.”

Smith’s remarks showed a clear frustration with delays, largely due to technical issues with SLS and Orion, that have pushed back the Exploration Mission (EM) 1 launch from 2017 to no earlier than December 2019. NASA announced the 2019 date a day before the hearing, while acknowledging that technical reviews concluded that June 2020 was a more likely launch date.

“After all these years, after billions of dollars spent, we are facing more delays and cost overruns,” Smith said. While he noted that some delays were caused by factors out of NASA’s control, like a tornado that damaged the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans in February, “many of the problems are self-inflicted.”

“It is very disappointing to hear about delays caused by poor execution, when the U.S. taxpayer has invested so much in these programs,” he added.

Smith, who announced Nov. 2 he would not run for reelection next year after more than three decades in the House, including serving as chairman of the science committee since 2013, warned about eroding support for the programs should there be additional delays.

“NASA and the contractors should not assume future delays and cost overruns will have no consequences,” he said. “If delays continue, if costs rise, and if foreseeable technical challenges arise, no one should assume the U.S. taxpayers or their representatives will tolerate this forever.”

“The more setbacks SLS and Orion face, the more support builds for other options,” he said, not elaborating on what those options would be.

Smith’s comments represent one of the strongest rebukes to date by a leading member of Congress regarding progress on SLS and Orion. Other members of the committee expressed few, if any, reservations about the programs at the hearing despite the latest delay.

“We must launch the Space Launch System in order to push beyond low Earth orbit,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee, in his opening remarks. “We must finish developing the Orion capsule in order to operate in deep space.”

Babin noted the delays but also highlighted the “significant progress” the overall exploration program has made. He offered his own warning, though, to the agency and companies working on the program. “NASA and the contractors have to execute. Failure to do so could have dire consequences for the program, and there will be no one else to blame,” he said.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said that NASA had overcome the issues with welding on the SLS core stage that delayed its progress. The agency is helping the European Space Agency on the Orion service module, another source of delays, such as providing NASA support for an American-built helium valve for the module that has been experiencing manufacturing problems.

One lesson from these problems, he said, was that program schedules didn’t provide adequate time to deal with issues that arose as NASA and companies went through the construction of SLS and Orion for the first time.

“I think we just need to be prepared, as we build schedules going forward, to know that these first-time things that we have never done before, or at a magnitude that has never been done before, may need a little bit of extra time that first time through, and not be overly optimistic in our schedules,” he said.

In an interview after the hearing, Gerstenmaier said there was no specific confidence level associated with the December 2019 launch date that NASA said Nov. 8 it was managing to for the EM-1 launch. Instead, he said the date provided focus for those working on SLS, Orion and their ground systems.

“It’s the right date for us to work to,” he said. “It’s the right pressure on the teams. If we move all the way to June [2020], that relaxes us to where I don’t think it’s healthy.”

He said NASA had the flexibility to adjust development and testing schedules as needed, depending on the progress of components like the Orion service module. “It’s a good target,” he said. “We’ll move as we need to.”

Gerstenmaier, in his testimony, emphasized the progress the agency had achieved, including hardware built for the various components. “The amount of work completed to date for the deep space exploration systems is large,” he said. “We need to be careful not to focus on a single launch date projection, but rather take time to examine the quality, quantity and future benefit of the work completed.”

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House Science Committee chairman to retire

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who was in his third and final term as chairman of the House Science Committee, said Nov. 2 he will not run for reelection in 2018. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Science Committee, announced Nov. 2 that he will not run for reelection in 2018.

In a brief statement, Smith, first elected to the House in 1986, cited “several reasons” without elaboration for his decision not to run for a 17th term in 2018, without elaborating.

“For several reasons, this seems like a good time to pass on the privilege of representing the 21st District to someone else,” said Smith, who will turn 70 later in November. “I hope to find other ways to stay involved in politics.”

Smith is best known in the space community for serving as chairman of the House Science Committee. Smith is in his third term as chairman of the committee and, under the rules of the House Republican conference, was not eligible to continue as chairman beyond this term.

Smith has often clashed with Democratic members of the committee on topics such as climate change and the environment. However, he has found bipartisan common ground on space issues, including NASA authorization legislation enacted earlier this year as well as commercial space regulatory topics.

“We’re going to give some stability and continuity to our space program, that’s what often times been missing,” Smith said in a January interview with SpaceNews when asked about his priorities for the committee in this term. “We want to make sure that our major programs continue from one administration to another. I think we’ll succeed in doing that.” He reiterated in that interview, though, his opposition to the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which NASA subsequently cancelled.

Smith, however, has been critical of what he deemed to be an overemphasis on Earth science spending at NASA during the Obama administration. “There are a dozen other agencies that investigate climate change, and there’s only one agency that explores space. I would like NASA to focus more on that mission,” he said in the interview.

He has also given particular, but positive, attention to the nascent field of astrobiology. As chairman of the committee, he has held several hearings on the efforts to detect life beyond Earth, including the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI. A hearing in April, for example, featured both the head of NASA’s science mission directorate as well as a senior astronomer at the SETI Institute.

“I think that whole subject is fascinating. Every year we have a hearing or two on that,” Smith said in January of his interest in astrobiology. “If we find some Earth-like planet that has methane and oxygen in the atmosphere, whether it’s in ten years or whenever, I think that’s going to be one of the most astounding discoveries in humankind’s history.”

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