NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Wednesday he is not optimistic that Congress will pass a NASA authorization bill this year, and expects to start the 2015 fiscal year on a continuing resolution (CR).
Bolden, speaking at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, said he was more optimistic about the prospects of an authorization bill last month, when the House passed its version of the legislation on a 401-2 vote. “That was not lost on me,” he said of the margin of passage. “My naïveté caused me to believe that, boy, things are going to change.”
However, the Senate has yet to take up the House bill or even introduce its own version. “They have talked off and on about an authorization bill, but we don’t see any serious movement there right now,” he said, adding that Congress was about to go on its summer recess and not return until early September. “I am not optimistic that we will get an authorization bill until 2015.”
On the appropriations side, Bolden said that that the increase in funding offered in the House bill over the administration’s request “was a very pleasant surprise for all of us.” He added that he was “disappointed” the bill didn’t fully fund commercial crew, offering $785 million versus the requested $848 million, “but we’ll take it.” He added he was also concerned about cuts in the bill in the request for Space Technology.
The Senate’s version of the appropriations bill provides similar funding levels, but has stalled out on the Senate floor because of unrelated issues. “There’s a strong possibility that the federal government could be funded through a continuing resolution for a period of time during fiscal year 2015,” he said. (Reports suggest that a CR would fund the government at least past the November elections.)
That’s a setback after the progress made though last month indicated a chance the appropriations would become law before the fiscal year begins on October 1. “Once again, we’ve snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Bolden said. “Everybody was really excited and looking forward to a really healthy budget.”
Bolden also offered a bit of news about the ongoing review of proposals submitted to the next round of the commercial crew program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap). “Our progress on commercial crew source selection deliberations has been evidently better than we anticipated,” he said. He said that those awards would come “much sooner than later this year,” but was not more specific. NASA officials have generally said over the last few months that the CCtCap contract or contracts would be announced in August or September.
A bill introduced in the House earlier this month that establishes property rights for resources taken from asteroids is not perfect, but a step in the right direction towards a broader resolution of property rights in outer space, a conference panel argued last week.
The American Space Technology for Exploring Resource Opportunities in Deep Space (ASTEROIDS) Act of 2014, introduced in the House earlier this month by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA), would establish that resources obtained from asteroids are the property of the company or other entity that extracted them. It would also provide “freedom from harmful interference” for those entities subject to US law engaged in asteroid mining.
“They designed it not to cause too many explosions or conflicts or problems,” said Jim Muncy, a co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, during a panel session on space property rights at the organization’s NewSpace 2014 conference Friday in San Jose, California. The bill was crafted, he said, to ensure it remained in the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee. He added that the bill’s sponsors also discussed the bill with State Department officials “to find out whether or not it would be a big problem for current US international obligations and policy.” That’s one reason, he said, that the bill only covers asteroids and not the Moon or other solar system bodies.
The idea of establishing property rights for extracted resources is not considered particularly controversial. Panelists noted that samples returned from the Moon by the Apollo missions, and Soviet Luna robotic missions, are considered the property of those nations. “We know that from the precedent of the Moon rocks,” said Berin Szoka, president of think tank TechFreedom, noting that some of those samples have been gifted and then resold. “There are some space lawyers who will quibble and will claim that that doesn’t mean those can actually owned in a way that they can be on Earth, but I don’t think that’s a correct view.”
The legislation isn’t perfect, though. Szoka called the introduced bill “the first draft of what I hope will ultimately get passed.” One flaw: “the one very obvious definition that’s missing is the definition of ‘asteroid.’ And by not defining that, it leaves that ambiguous.”
There’s also the question of what it means to extract resources. Sagi Kfir, corporate counsel for asteroid mining company Deep Space Industries, suggested that it might be possible to claim entire asteroids. “Asteroid are movable; they are not land property,” he said. “Asteroids, in and of themselves, are personal property” in much the same way as resources extracted, or moved, from them.
“I agree that asteroids are movable, and that asteroids are, in that sense, essentially in practice no different from a rock that you might remove from the surface, and we should essentially treat them the same way,” said Szoka.
Another issue is with the non-interference language in the bill: what does it mean to harmfully interfere with another entity’s operations on an asteroid? Kfir notes the bill’s language refers to the “exploration and use” of asteroid resources, which he suggested could allow someone to claim priority to an asteroid by simply observing it with a telescope, thus “exploring” it. “There are some gaping holes to a very thin legislation,” he said. “But it’s critical that’s fleshed out in terms of what’s ‘first in time’ and what’s the zone of this non-interference.”
The near-term prospects of resolving those issues with the bill and advancing it are unclear. Earlier this month, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said his subcommittee was reviewing the bill, but didn’t immediately commit to holding a hearing on or marking up the bill. “We have a limited amount of legislative days this year,” he noted. (Congress goes on recess at the end of this week and does not return until after Labor Day.)
The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), said at the conference she wants hearings about the bill before she would support move forward on the bill. “I’m always opposed to us moving forward on legislation without doing any hearings, any kind of fact-finding,” she said in an interview after her luncheon speech at the conference Saturday. She said she had not heard from NASA or from companies affected by the bill yet. “I just think it’s bad policy to move policy forward when you haven’t done the investigative work that it takes to do that.”
In a pair of orders issued Thursday, a federal court judge pushed SpaceX and the US Air Force to resolve the ongoing lawsuit over the EELV block buy contract through mediation rather than in the courtroom.
In the first order, Judge Susan Braden directed the Air Force and SpaceX to take the first steps towards mediation. By August 8, The Air Force must provide to SpaceX a list of missions it plans to perform using the vehicles acquired in the block buy contract “together with sufficient technical information to allow Plaintiff to determine whether and when it can perform those missions.”
SpaceX, by September 10, will submit a list of issues that it will seek to resolve through mediation as well as other issues involved with mediation, including a proposed mediator and schedule for the mediation process. The Air Force must respond by October 14. “To facilitate the good faith efforts of the Government and Plaintiff to undertake these initial steps in a mediation process, all parties are ordered to decline to comment in the press about the substance or assignments set forth herein,” the order states.
In a second order, largely dealing with the “administrative record” of the case, Judge Braden threw out a motion by United Launch Alliance (ULA), the “defendent-intervenor” in the case, to dismiss the SpaceX suit. That decision, though, was not based on the merits of ULA’s arguments in its motion, but because the court concluded ULA had no standing to request a dismissal. “The Defendant-Intervenor has no basis to challenge Plaintiff’s standing in this case, as all relevant evidence is within the custody and control of the Plaintiff and/or Government.”
The decision was considered a victory for SpaceX in many media reports, although it may be more accurate to consider it not a defeat. The court has not thrown out the SpaceX suit, although it hasn’t ruled on the Air Force’s motion to dismiss. (The fact that Judge Braden is setting up a mediation process suggests she will not rule on that motion while mediation is ongoing.) SpaceX has hinted in the past that it would be open to some kind of settlement in its suit, but has been vague on what it would accept.
In contrast to NASA and industry claims that work on the Space Launch System (SLS) is on track, a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) released Wednesday warned that tight schedules and budgets could delay the first launch of that heavy-lift rocket.
The report, requested by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), warned that the flat budget profile for development of SLS may be insufficient to keep the program on track for a first launch in December 2017. “The SLS program office calculated the risk associated with insufficient funding through 2017 as having a 90 percent likelihood of occurrence,” the report stated. “[F]urthermore, it indicated the insufficient budget could push the planned December 2017 launch date out 6 months and add some $400 million to the overall cost of SLS development.”
The development of the core stage, which is driving the overall SLS schedule, is compressed and much of its schedule reserve may already be spoken for, the GAO report found. “The SLS program is tracking threats to the core stage schedule that could take up as much as 70 percent of the 7 months of reserve,” it stated. “While these challenges are not overly complex from a technical viewpoint, resolving such threats to the schedule is critical because the element is in early development phases and still has several significant milestones and developmental activities ahead.”
That assessment contrasts with what NASA and industry have said about the status of SLS work, painting at time a rosy picture of progress on development of the rocket. In a discussion in May at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Ginger Barnes, vice president and program manager for SLS at Boeing, said the company was heading into the critical design review for the SLS core stage five months ahead of schedule.
The GAO report also addressed some other issues with the SLS, including the fact that its long-term missions, beyond the EM-2 mission in 2021 that will be the first to carry a crew, remain unclear. That uncertainty affects plans to develop upgrades to the SLS to incerase its payload capacity to 105 and eventually 130 metric tons. The GAO was also critical of plans not to compete a higher-performance upper stage for SLS, saying NASA’s rationale that Boeing won a competitive Constellation contract in 2007 didn’t reflect changes in the industry since then, including work by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences.
The GAO report cautioned that if the SLS suffered cost and schedule overruns, other NASA programs could be at risk if NASA decided to pay for SLS by taking money from them. “Although cost and schedule growth can occur on any project, increases associated with NASA’s most costly and complex missions— such as SLS, which makes up about 9 percent of NASA’s annual budget—can have dramatic effects on the availability of funding for NASA’s portfolio of major projects.”
NASA, in a response, suggested it would not seek additional funding or delay SLS in order to meet the desired 70-percent confidence level in the program’s cost and schedule estimates. “[D]elaying the SLS development schedule or diverting funding from other priorities to satisfy a schedule confidence level could jeopardize these goals and result in an increase in costs to the taxpayer,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, wrote in a response to the GAO included in the report. “Plans are in place to adjust schedule and minimize costs within the agency commitment if either funding levels decrease or technical problems arise.”
On Tuesday, the White House hosted a private event with the two surviving members of the Apollo 11 crew, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins, along with Neil Armstrong’s widow, Carol, and NASA administrator Charles Bolden. The White House has traditionally hosted the Apollo 11 crew on five-year anniversaries like this; previously, President Obama met with the crew on the 40th anniversary in 2009.
Few details about the meeting itself were disclosed. In a blog post, the White House discussed the Apollo 11 mission as well as NASA’s future plans, ranging from commercial crew to the Space Launch System and long-term plans to send humans to Mars. In a separate statement, President Obama said he used the meeting with the Apollo 11 crew “to thank them for serving as advocates, role models, and educators who’ve inspired generations of Americans – myself included – to dream bigger and reach higher.”
The meeting was not without some controversy, though. At a press briefing later Tuesday, reporters complained that the president’s meeting with the Apollo 11 crew was private, with no media allowed to observe. CBS’s Major Garrett told press secretary Josh Earnest that he planned “to lodge a formal complaint about the Apollo 11 event” on behalf of the White House Correspondents Association because of that lack of access.
Other reporters at the press conference used the anniversary to quiz Earnest about US-Russian relations in space, including comments by former NASA administrator Mike Griffin that the US is in a “hostage situation” with the Russians since they control crew access to the International Space Station. Earnest said little about that, other than the Us continues to cooperate with Russia in space and other arenas despite the Ukraine crisis.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, penned an op-ed about space exploration for The Hill earlier this week. “There are also those who ridicule space exploration. Waste of time. Little green men. Not a priority,” he writes. “We should not let them discourage us.”
Smith did get some criticism of the administration’s space policy into the piece, rueing the cancellation of the Constellation program and complaining about “costly distractions” to the space program, including what he perceived to be an overemphasis on Earth science at NASA. “The Obama administration continues to advocate increasing climate change funding at NASA at the expense of other priorities such as space exploration. There are 18 federal agencies that fund climate change research, but only one does space exploration.”
Smith’s Democratic counterpart, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), also issued a statement about the 45th anniversary with Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee. “NASA is critical to our nation and its economic strength, and there is no more fitting way to honor Apollo 11 than to resume our commitment to human exploration of deep space that we proved possible 45 years ago,” Edwards said in the statement. “Our bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2014 gets us started, and I look forward to continuing the mission.”
“Such an endeavor [of human space exploration] will inspire our young people, spur technological innovation, and strengthen our geopolitical standing,” said Johnson. “I urge my colleagues in Congress and in the Administration to make that program a reality.”
The long-awaited—apprehensively, in some quarters—senior review of NASA planetary science missions is effectively complete and will be publicly released in the next week or two, a NASA official said Monday.
“The planetary senior review, from a scientific report standpoint, has just been completed,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, in a presentation at the NASA Exploration Science Forum on Monday at NASA’s Ames Research Center. NASA is now drafting “letters of direction” to the various missions covered by the review, he said.
Green said that, because of the high level of interest in the planetary science senior review both in the scientific community and the media, NASA will wait until those letters are complete before releasing the report and NASA’s response. “I anticipate within the next week or two that that will be accomplished,” he said.
That interest stems from earlier concerns that constrained budgets could force NASA to make difficult decisions about canceling some ongoing missions, such as Cassini, which has been orbiting Saturn since 2004. Those concerns have eased somewhat in recent months, particularly involving Cassini. Some of Green’s charts earlier in the presentation mentioned Cassini’s plans to orbit closer to Saturn, known as “proximal orbits,” assuming the mission continues. “Cassini’s proximal orbits is part of that senior review,” Green said, “although I did show it on my chart, didn’t I?”
Green’s comments came as NASA appeared to resuscitate an astronomy mission threatened with cancellation in another senior review. The NASA astrophysics senior review, released in May, recommended terminating the Spitzer Space Telescope unless there was a way to reduce its costs to fit within constrained budgets. On Monday, NASA announced that Spitzer would remain in operation for the next two years.
“It has been announced to be approved for an extended mission for the next two years,” Green said at the forum, as he encouraged planetary scientists to make greater use of Spitzer and other space telescopes that are part of the astrophysics division.
For a time this spring, it appeared that Congress would make quick work of fiscal year 2015 spending bills. The House, for example, passed its version of a Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds NASA, NOAA, and NSF among other agencies, in late May. Meanwhile, debate on the Senate version of the bill started in mid-June before it got bogged down over other issues. It appeared that Congress might be able to pass the bills before the fiscal year started on October 1. It seemed too good to be true.
Because, as it turns out, it was too good to be true. With signs that the overall appropriations process is stalling, National Journal reports that House Republicans are planning a continuing resolution (CR) that would funding the government through perhaps election day. THe House is considering voting on the CR next week, before the August recess, an unusually early step that signals there’s little hope of getting appropriations bills passed before October 1.
A hearing several days ago held jointly by subcommittees of the Senate Commerce Committee and Senate Armed Services Committee on space access issues covered two of the key issues facing that topic in recent months: developing a domestic replacement for the RD-180 and competition for Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) missions. However, members showed little consensus on how to deal with either issue.
“It’s time for us to rise to the occasion and fix this situation,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) during a line of questioning about use on the Russian-built RD-180 engine and proposals to develop an American replacement. “That’s just not acceptable,” he said of the current reliance on the RD-180.
During the hearing, Defense Department witnesses, including Air Force Space Commander head Gen. William Shelton and Alan F. Estevez, principal under secretary of defense for acquisition, reiterated previous estimates of the time and cost of building an RD-180 replacement: five to eight years, and one to two billion dollars. That timeline, at least, didn’t make Sessions happy. “Well, that’s not acceptable,” Sessions said when Estevez gave the schedule estimate. “Why don’t we get busy and get this done and not drag it out?”
Other senators, though, were less impatient. “This strikes me as a low-risk, high-consequence kind of situation,” said Sen. Angus King (I-ME) of the possibility of Russia cutting off RD-180 exports.
“There’s no indication that we’d be cut off today,” Estevez responded. “There’s a good rationale for why we would move down the path to develop our own engine. However, while we’re doing that, use of the RD-180 engine is a cost-effective and proven way to launch our national security payloads.”
“It is also fairly clear that Roscosmos certainly doesn’t want to give up that income stream, and it looks like that, from their standpoint, they clearly want to continue to supply the RD-180,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said. In general, though, committee members appeared to support the idea of funding the start of development work on an RD-180 replacement, although there’s no consensus on how much to spend in fiscal year 2015: proposals have ranged from $25 million in a Senate defense appropriations bill approved by the appropriations committee last week to $220 million in the House defense appropriations and authorization bills.
Senators also used the hearing to discuss competition in the EELV program, including the “block buy” contract awarded to United Launch Alliance and SpaceX’s protest of that award. That block buy, said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), “may have made economic sense during the global environment at that time, and resulted in meaningful savings to the American taxpayer, $4.4 billion. Although well-intentioned, the unintended consequences of relying on a foreign supplier for critical national security equipment is now striking apparent.”
Cruz stopped short of calling for the block buy contract to be altered or cancelled, although later in the hearing he asked Shelton how long it would take to certify SpaceX’s Falcon 9 if the Air Force moved at “maximum speed.” Shelton noted that if everything goes “extremely well” that SpaceX will be certified by late this year, although the Falcon 9 v1.1 cannot handle launches that would be assigned to seven of ten existing Atlas V configurations. Shelton also said that the Air Force will spend between $60 and 100 million on that certification process.
SpaceX’s dispute with the Air Force provided fireworks late in the hearing, when Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), who left after opening statements and returned near the end of the two-hour hearing, fired off a line of questions to Shelton. He brought up a comment Shelton made in May about the SpaceX suit: “Generally, the person you want do business with, you don’t sue them.”
“Do you stand by that statement?” McCain asked. When Shelton said he did, McCain then asked about a ULA suit against the Air Force about recovering costs. “If some company or corporation thinks they are not being fairly treated, you don’t think they should be able to sue? I mean, that’s not our system of government, Gen. Shelton. I don’t really get your statement except that it shows real bias against the ability of any company or corporation in America to do what they think is best for their company or corporation.”
McCain appeared to liken the EELV block buy contract to the Air Force tanker contract scandal of the early 2000s. “People went to jail. People were fired,” he recalled of that controversy. “I don’t like this deal,” he said of the block buy EELV contract, complaining that only a handful of launches would be available for competition.
On Thursday, the Future Space Leaders Foundation held Future Space 2014, a conference oriented primarily to students and young professionals to discuss “cross-cutting issues” in space. The event included talks by four members of House, who discussed a range of issues about civil, commercial, and military space policy.
Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, said he still expected Congress to pass an update to the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) this year, even though such legislation has yet to be introduced. “It is my hope, before this Congress is finished, that we will be able to get some updates to the CSLA passed,” he said, without discussing what those changes would be.
Palazzo added that he also expected the Senate to pass a version of the NASA authorization bill that the House approved on a 401-2 vote on June 9. The Senate has yet to take up that bill, or introduce its own, but Palazzo said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee, has been talking to members of the Senate about their plans. He was more doubtful, though, about the ASTEROIDS Act introduced by Reps. Bill Posey (R-FL) and Derek Kilmer (D-WA) last week. “We have a limited amount of legislative days this year,” he said. “Our committee is reviewing it as we speak.”
In a separate speech later in the morning, Rep. Jim Langevin (D-RI), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, expressed support for funding a domestic replacement for the Russian-built RD-180 engine used on the first stage of the Atlas V. “There’s a strong possibility that the Congress will finalize support for a domestically-built alternative later this year,” he said. “I hope it happens sooner, rather than later.”
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who followed Langevin, discussed the need for limiting the liability that private space ventures face. He cited his own experience with the Rocket Racing League, which flew rocket-powered aircraft several years ago but lost funding when a rocket “completely unaffiliated with us blew up.”
“If we truly want to this industry to advance into the future, we’ve got to make sure we’re doing the right things to limit liability so those of us who are willing to take risks have the opportunity to that,” he said. Asked after his speech what specific measure he had in mind, he said that Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the incoming House Majority Leader, was making “great strides” on this topic. “As it relates to this issue, since it’s his district and he’s got the lead on this, I’m going to to turn to him for his guidance and his leadership,” Bridenstine said. (McCarthy’s district includes the Mojave Air and Space Port, home to a number of commercial space companies, including Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace.)
Closing out the event was Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM), who touched on commercial and military space activities, particularly those in his state. Like Rep. Langevin, Heinrich appeared to endorse development of an RD-180 engine. “It’s clear that over-reliance on assets like the RD-180 for national security launches is something that we need to look at very seriously,” he said in a luncheon speech. “Some argue that it would take years to build a comparable engine here in the United States, and they talk about the cost of building those assets. But I think these arguments only prolong inaction and, frankly, delay a course of action” towards self-reliance.
Heinrich also mentioned a topic he’s championed in military space, Operationally Responsive Space (ORS), which seeks to develop capabilities to rapidly build and launch satellites to support military forces in times of crisis. He has successfully fought efforts by the Air Force to close the ORS Office, based in New Mexico. “I’m very pleased that the Air Force has now agreed in recent years that this program is going to move forward,” he said. “I like to say that ORS is disruptive, and disruptive in the best sense of the word… It creates new possibilities for us.”