The House Science Committee is scheduled to mark up several bills in a session this morning, including HR 3625. That bill, formally introduced on Monday by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), would direct NASA not to reserve funds for ongoing programs, in particular the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, to cover termination liability costs should those programs be cancelled. “It is the intent of Congress that funds authorized to be appropriated for covered programs be applied in meeting established technical goals and schedule milestones,” the legislation states. It would also prevent NASA from terminating for convenience any prime contract for “covered programs” in the bill unless authorized by a future law. (The only program beyond SLS and Orion covered by the bill is the International Space Station.)
The issue of termination liability costs has been an issue for some time for Brooks, whose district includes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “Withholding scarce funds for termination liability slows development and hence increases the total cost of a project,” he said in a press release Wednesday about the bill. He cited NASA reports that more than $500 million is being withheld among those three programs to cover termination liability costs, funds he says “would otherwise be used to timely complete these scientific efforts.”
This is not the first time that the House has attempted to address this issue in recent months. The NASA authorization bill the committee approved in July, HR 2687, included a section almost identical to the current bill forbidding NASA to withhold funds for termination liability for SLS, Orion, and ISS. The fact that the committee is willing to take up this provision as a standalone bill suggests diminishing prospects for passage of an overall NASA authorization bill any time soon.
Later this morning, the full House Science Committee will hold a hearing on “Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond.” The hearing is primarily an exploratory and informational one, designed to collect information on the state of astrobiology research. The closest the hearing may come to policy issues is a statement in the hearing charter about assessing “existing and planned astrobiology research strategies and roadmaps.”
Such hearings are not that unusual: the committee’s space subcommittee held a hearing on exoplanets earlier this year, for example, and the hearing may allow some discussion on whether NASA is devoting the proper funding to astrobiology research. But the idea of holding a hearing on the potential for extraterrestrial life seems, to some, to be a case of misplaced priorities. “With only seven workdays left between now and the end of the first session of the 113th Congress, a full House committee has found time to hold a hearing on extraterrestrial life,” complained The Huffington Post in an article yesterday.
One of the members of the committee, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), defended the committee’s decision to discuss astrobiology. “If members of Congress were occupying floor time with discussions of extraterrestrial life, that would be a problem,” she told The Oregonian. Some might argue that such discussions could actually be an improvement on the current level of debate on Capitol Hill.
After a brief debate on the House floor late Monday afternoon, the House of Representatives passed HR 3547, a bill that extends the existing third-party commercial launch indemnification regime by one year. The bill passed on a 376–5 vote; the five dissenting votes were from Republicans who did not participate in the floor debate: Reps. Justin Amash (MI), Louie Gohmert (TX), Walter Jones Jr. (NC), Thomas Massie (KY), and Mark Sanford (SC).
While the leadership of the House Science Committee hailed the bipartisan support the bill had in a press release after Monday’s vote, the debate did bring up the disagreements between Republicans and Democrats regarding the length of the extensions. “I would have preferred a longer extension,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee, in remarks on the House floor, noting the NASA authorization bill his committee had approved this summer (on a party-line vote) included a five-year extension. The one-year extension, he said, would buy them time to work on a long-term extension as part of a larger commercial launch bill next year.
“While that is less than some in the industry would like,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the House Science Committee, said on the floor, “I believe it is an appropriate length, and that is because much has changed since the risk-sharing, liability, and indemnification regime was established in 1988.” A short-term extension would allow for a more thorough review of the regime, she argued. “A one-year extension provides the Congress with the time to conduct necessary hearings, perform our due diligence, and enable the enactment of a comprehensive update to existing commercial space legislation.”
The bill goes to the Senate, which has its own bill, S.1753, introduced by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) last month that would provide a three-year extension. There’s been no action on that bill since its introduction, despite initial hopes of quickly passing the bill via unanimous consent.
The House of Representatives is expected to take up, and likely pass, legislation that would extend the current third-party commercial launch indemnification regime by one year. HR 3547, introduced November 20 by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and a bipartisan group of cosponsors, is one of three bills scheduled to be considered by the House under suspension of the rules on Monday, according to the schedule from the House Majority Leader’s office. Suspension of the rules allows for expedited passage of non-controversial bills, and there’s no evidence of strong opposition to this bill.
As reported when the bill was introduced, it appeared that Republicans sought a longer extension of the regime, which indemnifies commercial launch providers from third-party damages that exceed levels that the companies must insure against. The regime expires at the end of this year, after Congress passed a last-minute one-year extension at the end of the previous Congress. Democrats indicated they wanted time to study the indemnification system to see if it should be changed or continued at all as part of a broader review of commercial space issues.
At the same time House members introduced their one-year extension, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) introduced S.1753, which would provide a three-year extension. At the time of the introduction, Nelson hoped to get the bill passed quickly via the Senate’s unanimous consent system for noncontroversial bills, but the Senate did not take action before adjourning November 21 for the Thanksgiving holiday.
While NASA is working to hand over many of the facilities it no longer needs at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) after the retirement of the Space Shuttle two years ago, one member of Congress wants to know if NASA should be divesting those assets even faster. The Orlando Sentinel reported late Wednesday that Rep. John Mica (R-FL) plans to hold a hearing early next year on what else NASA can do to rid itself of facilities it no longer needs. “We have evolved the space program, but we haven’t evolved the property and assets,” Mica told the Sentinel.
NASA is working to find new users for shuttle-related infrastructure at KSC that it no longer needs. Two years ago, NASA and Space Florida signed a deal with Boeing to give the company access to one of the three Orbiter Processing Facilities, which Boeing plans to use to assemble CST-100 commercial crew spacecraft, should the company continue in NASA’s Commercial Crew Program. In late June, NASA announced it was entering negotiations with Space Florida to turn over maintenance and operations of the Shuttle Landing Facility to the state agency. And, most controversially, NASA is looking to lease Launch Complex 39A to a commercial entity, attracting the attention of both Blue Origin and SpaceX, with the two companies and their supporters sparring in the media and even in a Congressional hearing.
Mica chairs the Government Operations subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, giving him, he believes, the ability to study an agency that normally falls under the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee. It’s unclear if the hearing will focus only on KSC or include other NASA centers that may have excess infrastructure, although the Sentinel article reports Mica is considering holding the hearing not in Washington but on the Space Coast in February—a good time to get away from wintry Washington, at least.
A few months ago, Russian media reported that the Russian government was considering a ban on the exports of the RD-180 engine, a Russian-built engine that propels the first stage of the Atlas V rocket. There’s no evidence that this proposed ban has gone anywhere, and officials with United Launch Alliance (ULA), which builds the Atlas V, sound unconcerned. “This isn’t the first time that there have been articles about Russia cutting off RD-180 exports. There’s never been any perturbation in the process,” ULA’s Andrew Aldrin said at the AIAA Space 2013 conference in September in San Diego.
Still, some remain concerned about the reliance on the RD-180. Earlier this month, Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) introduced legislation to study the use of the RD-180. S. 1679 would require the Defense Department to submit a report on the use of the RD-180, including the ability and cost to manufacture an alternative engine in the US. “America has the finest defense industry in the world,” Toomey said in a statement. “I question why that industry cannot produce a cost-effective system that will avoid relying on a nation that continues to pose a threat to our national security.”
Some in industry would like to see greater domestic investment in engines like the RD-180 that use kerosene and liquid oxygen propellants. “What development that’s going on in kerosene today is at a really low level,” Aerojet Rocketdyne’s Jim Maser told a meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board (ASEB) in Washington last month. “I would argue that it’s obvious that, as a nation, we are falling behind the Russians and now, likely, even the Chinese in the development of kerosene-based boost propulsion.” (Maser noted that SpaceX’s Merlin 1D engine uses kerosene and liquid oxygen, but called it small and “relatively low performance” compared to the RD-180.)
There’s good reason to think that a study of US reliance on the RD-180 sounds familiar. The fiscal year 2013 defense authorization bill included a provision in section 916 requiring “an independent assessment of the national security implications of continuing to use foreign component and propulsion systems for the launch vehicles under the evolved expendable launch vehicle program.” That report has not been publicly released yet, so Sen. Toomey introduced this month an amendment to the fiscal year 2014 authorization bill being considered by the full Senate asking the Comptroller General for “a report reviewing the report prepared by the Rand Corporation pursuant to section 916 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013.” Yes, a report about a report.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden speaks at a press availability November 17 with hardware for the first Orion test flight, slated for launch in September 2014, in the background. (credit: J. Foust)
In a blog post Thursday, NASA administrator Charles Bolden discussed the new national space transportation policy and its implications for the space agency. “This plan codifies the current, bipartisan priorities of NASA and provides further direction to other Federal agencies in realizing the President’s bold vision for space,” he wrote, discussing the agency’s commercial cargo and crew initiatives.
He also discussed, towards the end of the post, the continued development of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew spacecraft, programs enabled, he argued, by allowing commercial entities to take over more routine operations in low Earth orbit. “The President’s budget request fully funds NASA’s development of these next generation systems, which will carry U.S. astronauts on deep space exploration missions to an asteroid and Mars. Full funding of the President’s request will enable an uncrewed flight test of Orion in 2014 and the SLS in 2017.”
Last week, the day before the successful launch of NASA’s MAVEN mission to Mars, Bolden visited the facility at the Kennedy Space Center where that first Orion is being assembled for the 2014 uncrewed test launch on a Delta IV Heavy, emphasizing the progress NASA and Orion’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, were making on the spacecraft. “My next step for Orion, as NASA administrator, is to go back to Washington, go back to Congress, and said, ‘Look, we are making steady progress. We are delivering on the things we said we were going to do, we need your continued support,’” he said in a brief Q&A with media.
Later, Bolden was asked if that progress he and others emphasized on Orion was making it easier for him to make that case in Congress in an era of constrained budgets. He replied that it was, in fact, becoming harder because of sequestration. “Sequestration is unreasonable,” he said. “My hope as the NASA administrator is that the Congress and the administration find a way to get us out of sequester because that is damaging to the program we have going.”
Bolden also warned against another shutdown like the one that halted most NASA activities for more than two weeks last month, saying it would be “tragic” if another shutdown occurred. “These guys are working at a really nice pace, and they were really moving out and they were doing all kinds of things on the vehicle when we told them they couldn’t come into this building for 16 days,” Bolden said, referring to work on Orion. “We can’t afford to do that again.”
Thursday’s release of the new National Space Transportation Policy didn’t contain much in the way of surprises or other major changes compared to the previous policy or ongoing activities by NASA and other federal agencies. As a result, the official reaction to the policy was generally pretty positive, if bland.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, said she saw parallels between the policy and a NASA authorization bill she introduced (but failed to get out of committee) in July. “Adopting these shared priorities provides NASA substantive policy direction,” she said in a statement late Thursday. (The policy, of course, goes beyond NASA to address national security and commercial space transportation policy issues as well.)
In the same statement, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee, emphasized safety issues regarding space transportation. “I also want to reiterate my strong commitment to the safety of any U.S. space transportation capability, and I look forward to working with the Administration in ensuring that safety remains the highest priority in the implementation of the National Space Transportation Policy.”
Two different industry groups praised the policy as well, but for different reasons. “A balanced approach between government and commercial efforts will help spur innovation and technology development in a more cost-effective manner than ever done before,” said George Torres, chair of the Coalition for Space Exploration. While the coalition emphasized a balance between the public and private sectors, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation emphasized the support for commercial space transportation in the policy. “We appreciate this clear delineation of policy in favor of supporting American industry, creating the most effective and efficient space program possible and ensuring the nation retains its leadership and competitiveness in space,” said CSF president Michael Lopez-Alegria.
Boeing, a member of both organizations, issued its own statement about the policy, more closely reflecting the Coalition’s emphasis on public-private balance than the CSF’s emphasis on commercial space transportation. “Boeing applauds the president’s balanced approach to developing affordable commercial crew and cargo transportation in areas of proven technology, while he simultaneously accepts the challenge for the United States – as the world’s leader in space exploration – to go far beyond Earth’s orbit,” said Boeing vice president John Elbon in a statement.
Today, 50 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, some are using the anniversary to make a call for a return of the robust space program so closely associated with him. “We should put the space program back at the center of American life. Let’s begin a national discussion to decide the next great mission for NASA,” wrote Brent Budowsky, a former congressional aide, in an op-ed in The Hill.
Budowsky’s essay follows familiar lines for those looking for guidance from the space program’s past: the leadership offered by Kennedy, the right stuff of those early astronauts (“Knights of the Round Table,” he calls them in an extension of the “Camelot” mythos), and the spinoffs created by space exploration, among other familiar tropes. He himself doesn’t know what that “next great mission” for NASA should be, other than presumably not NASA’s current plans to redirect an asteroid as a stepping stone to eventual human missions to Mars.
“I propose a national discussion seeking ideas for the next great mission of NASA from astronauts past and present, Nobel laureates, leaders in science and technology, educators, entrepreneurs, media commentators and, above all, young people,” he says, but is vague on how that “national discussion” would lead to anything like he admired about the early space program.
What he doesn’t mention, though, is that energy from the early Space Age was driven by a Cold War competition with existential stakes. And, even fifty years ago, there were doubts about the direction of the program: Kennedy was in discussions with the Soviets about potential cooperation versus competition weeks before his death, although as John Logsdon writes in his recent book about Kennedy’s space policy, a review he initiated, but not completed until after his assassination, advocated for continuing Apollo in some form.
“So it is quite possible, and even likely, that had Kennedy lived, what many view as one of his signature achievements, if not indeed the one — sending America to the moon — would not have happened,” argues Rand Simberg in an op-ed in USA Today. “Kennedy’s legacy in space is a NASA human-spaceflight program that has been rudderless for half a century, because its purpose was never articulated in terms that would justify the massive amounts of money expended on it.”
Kennedy’s influence on space policy, in that respect, continues to this day. But what could have happened to Apollo, and space policy in general, had Kennedy lived will remain a tragic what-if.
After many months of delays, the Obama Administration quietly released Thursday afternoon a new National Space Transportation Policy. This is an update to the former space transportation policy developed during the Bush Administration and completed in late 2004. Both documents outline policy in regards of civil, national security, and commercial launch activities in the United States.
Many of the central tenets of the new policy are the same or similar as the 2004 policy (which, in turn, retained those of previous national policies.) These include assured access to space; use of US vehicle to launch US government payloads, with certain exceptions; and support for commercial space transportation in the United States. There are updates to the new policy to reflect NASA’s direction to develop “a heavy-lift space transportation system” (the Space Launch System is not mentioned by name in the new document) as well as commercial crew transportation systems and “other related capabilities” like on-orbit refueling and advanced in-space transportation systems.
A few other differences between the two policies worth noting:
The new policy emphasizes allowing for new entrants for launching US government payloads. The 2004 policy stated that, for “the foreseeable future, the capabilities developed under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program shall be the foundation for access to space” for intermediate and larger government payloads. The new policy simply calls for “to the maximum extent practicable, the availability of at least two U.S. space transportation vehicle families” without mentioning EELV by name. Both policies allowed for the introduction of new vehicles “that demonstrate the ability to reliably launch” such payloads, but the new policy specifically mentions the use of “established interagency new entrant certification criteria” for such vehicles, and any changes to such criteria would have to be coordinated between the National Security Advisor and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The 2004 policy played up the development of “operationally responsive” launch systems, part of the push at the time for the broader concept of operationally responsive space. “Before 2010, the United States shall demonstrate an initial capability for operationally responsive access to and use of space to support national security requirements,” the 2004 policy stated. The new policy deemphasizes this, directing the Secretary of Defense to work with other agencies on “launch concepts, techniques, and technologies needed for augmentation or rapid restoration of national security space capabilities” without a specific goal or deadline as in the old policy, and without using the term “operationally responsive space.”
The new policy clarifies the launch of US government hosted payloads on commercial spacecraft. Previously, there had been uncertainty if such hosted payloads required a waiver from the White House if the commercial satellite that payload was hosted on was being launched outside the United States. The new policy explicitly states that hosted payloads, as defined in the policy, are exempt from the waiver requirement and can be launched on a non-US vehicle without one.
The new policy, in its commercial space guidelines section, includes a provision not found in the older policy to “Cultivate increased technological innovation and entrepreneurship in the U.S. commercial space transportation sector through the use of incentives such as nontraditional acquisition arrangements, competition, and prizes.” This mostly endorses current activities (notably NASA’s Commercial Crew Program); there are no current plans for space transportation prizes, although the FAA did propose a “Low Cost Access to Space” prize in 2011 that was not funded.