Arizona passes spaceflight liability bill

The governor of Arizona has signed into law a bill that provides commercial spaceflight companies in the state with liability protections similar to those in several other states. Gov. Jan Brewer signed HB2163 on Wednesday, a days after both the Arizona Senate approved an amended version of the bill and the state House then concurred with the Senate’s version. The bill attracted little opposition in either legislative chamber, with a final House vote of 58-1 in favor of the bill.

The bill, similar to existing laws in states such as Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, and Texas, allows spaceflight companies to have their customers sign liability release forms prior to their flights, and affirms that such liability releases are valid. The state Senate stripped some of the details in the House bill, which originally specified the language and format of the liability waiver. The final bill also does not include exceptions for gross negligence and intentional harm contained in the House bill.

The legislation was sought primarily by WorldView Enterprises, an Arizona company that plans to perform high-altitude balloon flights. Last year, the company received a determination by the FAA that such flights, to altitudes of about 30 kilometers, could be licensed as launches by the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The company is proposing to perform those flights from the town of Page in northern Arizona.

Bolden defends NASA’s exploration plans, but warns big budgets aren’t on the horizon

In a conference speech Tuesday, NASA administrator Charles Bolden warned against trying to redirect NASA’s exploration plans, while also cautioning that those plans have to fit in an environment where Apollo-era budgets aren’t realistic.

“We made a decision. Some people in this room don’t like it. But we’re on our way, and you can either go with us, or figure out how to start all over again, and everybody in this room, I think, knows what happens when you start all over again,” Bolden said during a question-and-answer session after his keynote speech at the Humans To Mars Summit in Washington Tuesday morning.

What would happen, Bolden argued, is that the progress that NASA has made on its current path over the last several years would be lost, such as the successful development of commercial cargo systems for supporting the ISS and ongoing development of commercial crew transportation systems, which he said freed up NASA to focus more on exploration systems that would eventually allow humans to go to Mars. “We are farther down this road than we have been in a long, long, long, long time. If you don’t want to admit that, I can’t help you.”

“So, get over it, to be blunt,” he said. “This is the path we have chosen. Help us get it right.” That path can be “tweaked,” he acknowledged, but constant changes would result in no progress. “We can do this, but I need your help.”

In the same talk, though, he cautioned that any long-term goal of sending humans to Mars would have to fit into budgets not much larger than those today, and nothing like the Apollo era, when NASA received several percent of the federal budget. “We are not going to get four percent of the federal budget,” he said. “If you are serious about wanting to go to Mars, start thinking about reality, and reality is the budget. We are not going to get four percent of the federal budget to go to Mars or any other place.”

NASA’s plans, he said, required only “modest” increases in budgets but, as in past presentations, Bolden and other NASA officials didn’t quantify how much “modest” was, other than it was less than those much larger Apollo-era budgets. “If you feel we’ve got to have the Apollo-era funding levels, then forget it right now. Don’t spend your time at this conference, because you—we—are not going to get there.”

The rest of the Q&A session, as well as Bolden’s prepared remarks, covered familiar ground about NASA’s exploration plans and related issues. He reiterated, as he has since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, that NASA’s partnership with Russia was still in good shape. “I am cautious, but I am cautiously optimistic,” he said, noting ISS operations were unaffected in the Georgia crisis in 2008.

He also put in another plug for full funding for NASA’s commercial crew program, revisiting a contentious hearing with a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee earlier this month, when Bolden and members argued about whether Congress fully funded the commercial crew program. He said that, in fiscal year 2011, NASA asked for $500 million for commercial crew but received only $312 million in the final appropriations bill. “I don’t care what Congress says or what staffers say or anything, $312 million is not $500 million,” he said. “We have never gotten what the President has asked for for commercial crew.”

“We really need the support of Congress,” he added, “and it’s my intent to get down on my hands and knees, and beg and plead, and help them understand that this nation needs our own capability to get humans into space.”

WSJ editorial criticizes California tax break bill that benefits SpaceX

Earlier this month, the California Senate approved AB 777, legislation that would exempt space companies from paying taxes on certain property related to spaceflight, including an “orbital space facility, space propulsion system, space vehicle, launch vehicle, satellite, or space station of any kind,” as well as components of such systems.

The bill is slightly different from what the California Assembly passed in January. The Senate version deleted a provision that extended the tax break to equipment that would be placed in those spaceflight systems, and also added a provision stating that an “inference shall not be drawn from this act” regarding whether such property qualifies as “business inventories” in the state tax code. Those amendments mean the bill is back in the Assembly to be passed again as amended.

One would normally think that a bill that provides a tax break to companies would be warmly received by the Wall Street Journal, but AB 777 is an exception. In an editorial published in Monday’s paper, the Journal criticized the bill; the company that reportedly instigated the bill, SpaceX; and its founder, Elon Musk. “Upon his request, Democrats who dominate the legislature are moving to exempt SpaceX and other space-travel companies from California’s personal property tax,” the editorial states. SpaceX could have sought an appeal of a property tax bill it received last year for engines it built, but instead “jumped the queue and petitioned the legislature for a tax reprieve.”

The Journal’s argument is that the legislature is providing special treatment to SpaceX because of the wealth and influence of Musk. “The current legislation would specifically benefit SpaceX and a handful of smaller space firms like Aerojet Rocketdyne,” the editorial states. Of course, Aerojet Rocketdyne, with more than 5,000 employees prior to laying off about 250 earlier this year, still has more employees company-wide than SpaceX, which has close to 4,000 employees. In addition, companies like Boeing and Space Systems/Loral, who build satellites in the state, may also qualify for the tax break.

The editorial notes that other exceptions to state property taxes have been made, such as household furnishings and pets. “But, ahem, taxing a rocket and Fido aren’t equivalent,” it argues. “For one, it’s hard to put a price on a dog.” (Clip that editorial out and take it with you the next time you go to a pet store.) The Journal would rather see the state repeal the entire personal property tax rather than grant individual exceptions, something that the California Legislature seems unlikely to take up soon.

The lead sponsor of the bill, Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi (D-Torrance), hasn’t hid the fact that AB 777 will benefit SpaceX. “Private companies like Space X [sic] are building rocket ships and creating thousands of good paying manufacturing jobs right here in Southern California. We want these companies to invest and grow in our state,” he wrote in an op-ed published last week in his local newspaper, the Daily Breeze. “Passage of AB 777 will be one giant leap forward for this exciting new industry and for California.”

Bolden and Holdren reaffirm support for asteroid mission as the next step to Mars

The head of NASA and the President’s science advisor told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) this week that the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) remained the next logical step of a long-term strategy to eventually send people to Mars, despite the protestations of some in Congress as well as “outside fan clubs.”

“The FY15 budget request keeps NASA on a steady path we’ve been following, a stepping-stone approach to meet the President’s challenge of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said. Bolden was referring to the speech made by President Obama four years ago this week at the Kennedy Space Center that called for a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 and human missions to Mars orbit in the mid-2030s. That speech, Bolden suggested, has been forgotten by a lot of people who question NASA’s exploration plan today.

“Some of you may say the same thing that some of the committee members ask me when I go to the Hill: ‘When did you guys decide you were going to do all this new stuff?’ We’ve been on this path since 2010,” Bolden said, recounting the goals laid out in Obama’s speech. “For a variety of reasons, it just kind of went over people’s heads. But it didn’t go over our heads.”

After the back-to-back presentations Wednesday morning by Bolden and Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren, NAC chairman Steve Sqyures asked if the ARM was, in fact, consistent with the goals of that 2010 speech. “With respect to the goals outlined in the President’s speech, does that mission answer the mail?” he asked of the ARM.

“I think the current version of the NASA plan is consistent with the President’s vision,” Holdren responded. “The President’s vision was laid out with very broad brushstrokes.” The ARM, he said, fulfills several objectives in preparing for future exploration as well as science and commercialization. “I think it is an incredibly valuable mission in terms of the number of purposes it serves, largely using technologies and components that are being developed with current budgets.”

At the NAC meeting, as well as several previous appearances, Bolden laid out a broad exploration strategy that took NASA from Earth orbit operations on the ISS to the “proving ground” of cislunar space, including both the ARM and future potential missions in lunar orbit or the Earth-Moon Lagrange points, and then eventually to Mars. NASA’s current programs, including commercial crew, the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and ARM, are all “interlocking pieces” of the broader strategy, he said.

Bolden specifically defended development of the SLS, citing criticism that NASA’s exploration goals could alternatively be achieved with existing smaller launch vehicles and the use of on-orbit propellant depots. “When you start talking about the kinds of missions we’re talking about, numbers of launches required adds to the complexity and the risk incurred,” Bolden said. He added, though, if cryogenic propellant depots already existed, it would have been the “optimal” approach over SLS. “But when we looked at how much money it would take to do that, and how much time, we assumed we wanted to take the path of least resistance and the path of least risk, so we ended up where we are.”

Others, meanwhile, have agitated for different uses of SLS and other capabilities than the ARM, including a return to the Moon. “I think many of your outside fan clubs and cheerleading sections are not convinced” NASA has an exploration strategy, said NAC member Tom Young, citing the lack of details and funding profiles in NASA’s current plan. “It’s more of a passion and a dream than a strategy.”

“There are, of course, a lot of different voices out there in what you call our ‘fan club,’” Holdren said, “and some of them are people who say we absolutely have to go back to the Moon and establish a presence on the surface and it’s a terrible tragedy we haven’t done that. Those folks may never be persuaded that spending $60 to 80 billion to do that is not the best use of $60 to 80 billion in the environment that we now find ourselves. People are just not realistic about the costs of these things.”

Bolden and Holdren also argued for increased spending on technology development, which has been funded at levels well below the administration’s request in recent appropriations bills. “Technology development is not a high priority in the Congress right now, unfortunately,” Bolden said. “It’s a slow, painful process, but we continue to work to whittle away at the opposition.”

“I think we have an education problem in conveying the connection between advanced technology and the ability to do the missions that most in Congress think we need to do,” Holdren added. “They think we can just go to Mars tomorrow by pouring some more money in.” That last comment appeared to be a subtle dig at interest by some in Congress for a 2021 Mars flyby mission.

“Every member of Congress will stand up and say, ‘Of course NASA has to go to Mars. Of course we have to lead the world in planetary exploration,’” Holdren continued. “But they don’t get that we won’t get there without investments in advanced technology.”

Intel community willing to allow higher resolution commercial imagery

For the last few years, commercial satellite remote sensing company DigitalGlobe (and, before its merger with DigitalGlobe, GeoEye) has been lobbying the government to allow it to sell sharper satellite imagery that it’s currently allowed. DigitalGlobe is currently restricted to selling imagery with resolution no sharper than 0.5 meters per pixel, but has been pushing to change that limit to 0.25 meters. The company argued that companies in other nations, not subject to US regulations, are providing imagery that is starting to approach DigitalGlobe’s sharpness, and thus the company needs the ability to sell sharper images to compete.

This week, government officials have the strongest indication to date that they’re willing to change the resolution limits. Speaking at the Geoint conference in Tampa on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the intelligence community had reached “consensus” on supporting DigitalGlobe’s call for revised resolution regulations. “The intelligence community supports a measure that would allow industry to provider higher-resolution commercial satellite imagery,” he told Aviation Week.

Those comments were confirmed later at the conference by Letitia Long, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). However, the process to change those resolution limits requires consultation with several other agencies outside of the intelligence community as well as the White House. She didn’t know when a final decision would come, Space News reported, but the company is hoping for a decision before the August launch of its WorldView-3 satellite, which is designed to produce imagery with resolutions as sharp as 0.31 meters.

It’s unclear if the change in resolution limits would be tied to a review of the overall national commercial remote sensing policy, which does not explicitly include any resolution limits. That policy was last updated 11 years ago, in April 2003; the administration has been gradually performing reviews and updates of “sectoral” space policies, like the national space transportation policy updated last November.

GAO report offers good news, but also warnings, about performance of NASA programs

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released on Tuesday its annual assessment of “large-scale” NASA projects. The good news of the report was that NASA, by and large, is doing well in terms of cost and schedule performance of its major programs: an average cost growth of 3% and launch delay of 2.8 months for 14 selected programs in their implementation phase, compared to average cost growth of 3.9% and launch delay of 4.0 months in 2013. Those figures exclude the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST); when included, the average cost growth in the 2014 report rises to 37.8% and the average launch delay to 6.6 months given that large program’s major overruns. However, the averages with JWST included are still an improvement over 2013.

Prior to the report’s release, NASA officials had been emphasizing the good performance they were seeing on most of their missions. “More and more the last few years, our missions are coming in on schedule and on budget,” said Craig Tupper, director of the resources management division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), in a briefing to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) science committee last week. “That certainly helps us to maintain stability in the program.”

There are, though, a few problems with the portfolio of NASA programs. The GAO report flagged the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) mission, whose cost has increased by at least 15 percent. That’s triggered a review and replan of the mission, which will likely miss its planned May 2017 launch date. “That 556 number is going to go up a lot,” Tupper warned at the NAC meeting, referring to the original estimated development cost of the spacecraft of $556 million.

The problem with ICESat-2 is due to a “very challenging instrument development,” said Peg Luce, deputy director of the earth science division of NASA SMD, later at the same meeting. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which is developing the spacecraft’s sole instrument is putting the “cream of the crop in in-house instrument development” on the program to get the laser altimeter instrument on track. The revised plan for the mission will be presented to NASA’s Program Management Council at the end of May, she said.

Potentially bigger issues than the overrun on ICESat-2, through, are uncertainties about much larger programs. The GAO report notes that nearly three quarters of the overall budget for major programs currently belongs to only four programs: JWST, the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and Commercial Crew. “Any cost or schedule overrun on NASA’s largest, most complex projects could have a ripple effect on the portfolio and has the potential to postpone or even cancel altogether projects in earlier development stages,” the report warns.

The GAO is particularly concerned that, based on where these largest programs currently are, the risk for overruns is high. “JWST will soon enter integration and testing—the point at which cost growth and schedule delays are most likely,” the report states. “Additionally, there are questions about the realism of the SLS and Orion cost estimates.” SLS and Orion aren’t included in the cost and schedule figures above because the programs are still in their formulation phase, although NASA officials have stated that—at least for now—those programs remain on track.

Senate committee approves commercial launch license/permit bill

Largely overlooked last week in the hubbub about hearings on the NASA budget proposal, a new NASA authorization bill, and relations with Russia was a move by a Senate committee on Wednesday to approve legislation to adjust the commercial launch licensing system for reusable suborbital vehicles.

S. 2140, introduced last month by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) with several bipartisan co-sponsors, would allow suborbital RLVs to hold both an experimental permit and a launch license. Under current law, vehicles that hold an experimental permit—which allows for test, but not revenue-generating, flights—have to surrender that permit when receiving a full-fledged launch license.

Some in the industry sought the ability to retain less-restrictive permits so they could be used for test flights, while using the license for commercial flights. “I think anybody who is building multiple vehicles over time will want to have, at different times, those vehicles on a permit and operating under a license,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a luncheon talk at the Goddard Memorial Symposium outside Washington, DC, last month.

What the Senate Commerce Committee approved without discussion, as part of a basket of other bills, was an amended version of S.2140 offered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, that achieves the same aim, with minor changes to the language of the section.

“Innovative industries like commercial spaceflight are advancing rapidly, and we can’t allow outdated laws to stifle progress. Unfortunately that’s exactly what’s happening,” Rubio said in a statement. “These laws did not anticipate what commercial companies are now doing with vehicle testing and commercial spaceflights, and therefore have caused progress to slow.” (It’s worth noting that the “outdated” law amended by this bill is less than ten years old: the ability of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to issue experimental permits was established with the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, passed in late 2004.)

Rubio’s statement also included a word of thanks from Whitesides. “This legislation addresses a technical issue that will help the commercial spaceflight industry develop and deploy reusable space vehicles quickly and safely,” he said.

The substance, or lack thereof, of NASA’s ban on Russian cooperation

The news last week that NASA was cutting off cooperation with the Russian government—with the very large exception of International Space Station (ISS) operations—attracted a lot of attention in the space industry and the general public, which continues to the present. “NASA is cutting ties with Russia. But it’s not that simple,” reads the headline of a Washington Post article today. That headline is partially correct: it’s not that simple because NASA isn’t cutting ties with Russia. In fact, the ban on cooperation is now so riddled with holes that it actually bans very little.

In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee on Tuesday, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said there were exemptions in addition to the one for ISS operations. “On a case-by-case basis, we get an activity exempted from any prohibition” through an interagency review process, he said. Exemptions at time of the hearing, he said, cover the COSPAR meeting in Moscow in August, a Russian instrument on the Mars Curiosity rover, and three different, unnamed activities for which exemptions had been requested.

At a meeting Wednesday afternoon of the NASA Advisory Council’s space committee, NASA officials said additional activities done in cooperation with the Russians had been exempted form the ban. Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said that a joint activity to make mirrors for the Spektr-RG (or Spectrum-X-Gamma) mission has been exempted. NASA associate administrator of science John Grunsfeld said that the only joint activity between NASA and the Russian government in science that had not been exempted was a joint science definition team for Russia’s Venera-D mission. “We’re still asking the question,” he said of efforts to get it exempted.

So what’s left? A NASA spokesperson told Space News that a few other activities were affected by the ban, including a meeting about a Siberian earth sciences project and testing of an aircraft model in a Russian wind tunnel.

That lack of substance to the policy didn’t stop one individual from criticizing in at a Senate hearing Wednesday. “I support well targeted sanctions on Russia that will have a direct impact on President Putin’s thinking,” said Susan Eisenhower, chairman emeritus of the Eisenhower Institute and granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, she added, “I believe that rolling back space cooperation could be counterproductive and damaging to our national security and our long-term space agenda.”

Those reasons, she said, include the argument that national security is enhanced by cooperation, that the ban could backfire by alienating those in Russia who are friendly to the US while strengthening hardliners, and that the safety of human spaceflight depends on trust. “It is already easier to terminate space cooperation than it is to get it started again,” she said. “We will not be able to meet our long-term goals in space without it.”

Subcommittee quickly approves amended NASA authorization bill

The House Science Committee’s space subcommittee quickly approved an amended version of HR 4412 during a markup session this morning that lasted less than half an hour. Instead of the bill text as filed, the subcommittee adopted an amendment in the nature of a substitute with several changes to the bill introduced earlier this week.

The revised bill amends the provision in the new bill requiring NASA to develop an exploration roadmap, requiring such a report 180 days after the bill’s enactment (instead of one year as previously.) The bill includes a new section on the Commercial Crew program, specifying that “safety is the highest priority” in the selection of new contracts for the program, as well as an independent cost and schedule estimate due to Congress 30 days after the new contracts are awarded.

The amended bill no longer bars NASA from spending money on its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). It does, though, require a report within 180 days of enactment on budget and schedule for the mission, as well as what technologies the ARM will use that can also be used for Mars “which could not be gained by lunar missions.” Added to the amended bill is a provision requiring a report within 60 days on the Mars 2021 flyby mission concept proposed by Inspiration Mars, to be followed by an assessment “of whether the proposal for a Mars Flyby Mission to be launched in 2021 is in the strategic interests of the United States in space exploration.”

On termination liability, the amended bill prohibits reserving funds for termination liability for covered programs (SLS, Orion, JWST, and ISS) and requires NASA to give 12 months notice before NASA could terminate those programs either for cause or for convenience [corrected to reflect language in the bill].

Unlike last year’s contentious, partisan debate, subcommittee and full committee leadership of both parties praised the bipartisan nature of this revised bill. “The bill and amendment for subcommittee this morning reflect a true bipartisan agreement,” Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the space subcommittee. “The ranking member and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but the provisions contained in this agreement are a testament that Republicans and Democrats can work together in an effective manner for the good of the nation.”

The only sour note to the bipartisan harmony was from full committee vice-chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said that while he supported the bill overall, he disagreed with the long-term goal of the exploration roadmap of sending humans to Mars. “I believe it is an expensive folly to tie the American government’s space program so closely to the goal of putting human beings on Mars,” he said. “The odds are too great that this will result in a huge waste of very limited resources that could be spent on goals that are much more certain and much more beneficial to our people today. When one tried to cross a bridge too far, somebody’s going to get soaked.”

New NASA authorization bill makes only minor changes to last year’s version

At 9 am today, the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee will mark up a new version of a NASA authorization bill, formally introduced earlier this week. The new bill, HR 4412, is very similar to the bill the Science Committee marked up last summer, HR 2687, a bill that generated unusually strong partisan divisions. There are some differences, though, between the two bills, and some of the major ones are summarized below:

  • Unlike last year’s bill, which authorized spending for two years (fiscal years 2014 and 2015), the new bill covers only one year—fiscal year 2014. Yes, this bill authorizes spending that was already appropriated three months ago. Needless to say, the authorization and appropriated funding levels match up.
  • As in the case with last year’s bill, the new bill blocks NASA from spending money on its “Asteroid Retrieval Mission” (which NASA has been calling the “Asteroid Redirect Mission” since last summer) until it completes a number of reports. The new bill requires that those reports also assess the technologies that ARM provides to support planetary defense applications.
  • The bill includes language addressing the reservations of funds for termination liability, as in the previous bill, but with some changes. The old bill stated that NASA “shall direct prime contractors not to reserve funds,” while the new bill states that NASA will not “require the reservation of funds by the prime contractor.” The new bill also directs that funds already reserved for termination liability “be promptly used to make maximum progress” for those programs (SLS, Orion, ISS, and JWST) and notify Congress 120 days before initiating the termination of a contract for convenience of cause. The older bill expressly prohibited NASA from terminating contracts for convenience for covered programs.
  • Section 215, which in the original bill required the next phase of NASA’s commercial crew program to be “under a cost-type contract”, now deals with Aerospace Safety Advisory Council (ASAP) advice, requiring NASA to report on advice provided by ASAP that it plans to follow or not, and why. That matches an amendment to the bill made during the markup to the earlier bill last July.
  • Section 711 of the original bill, which established a fixed six-year term for the NASA administrator, is not in the new bill.
  • The new bill contains two new sections, 305 and 502, that require NASA to use the ISS and related commercial services for science and technology demonstration missions “wherever it is practical and cost effective to do so.”
  • The section of the bill covering Space Act Agreements, which originally specified that any such agreement be used when standard contracts or other instruments are “not feasible or appropriate”, now refers only to funded Space Act Agreements.
  • A provision in the original bill that provided a five-year extension of commercial launch indemnification has been removed, as Congress already passed a three-year extension.
  • Language in several places in the earlier bill about cooperation with international partners is expanded in the new bill to include commercial partners and other not-for-profit partners.
  • The new bill includes, in section 203, a requirement for NASA to conduct a naming competition for the SLS and the overall “deep space human exploration program.”