Congress, NASA, Pentagon

At Future Space, members of Congress discuss future of space legislation

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.”

9 comments to At Future Space, members of Congress discuss future of space legislation

  • Heinrich also mentioned a topic he’s championed in military space, Operationally Responsive Space (ORS),

    I often agree with the Obama Administration’s space policy, but in trying to kill the ORS office they are dead wrong. Fight on, Mr. Heinrich!

    — Donald

    • Allen Thomson

      Hear, hear! The US’ current military dependence on a few big, vulnerable, expensive satellites — any one of which would take many months to several years to replace — should be worrying folks who have national security responsibilities. Of course, it should have been worrying them for the past several decades.

    • Dark Blue Nine

      I dunno.

      I agree with the sentiment that the USAF and NRO need to join the 21st century, and that includes leavening their flagship satellites with more numerous, less vulnerable, more temporally useful, and more affordable smallsats. China’s ASAT test against FY-1C in 2007 should have been one helluva wake-up call. But progress since then has been painfully absent.

      That said, the seven-year existence of the ORS Office has largely proven how _NOT_ to field operationally responsive space systems. TacSat-1 sat on the ground for years to the point of obsolescence. TacSat-2 sat on orbit for months, unable to turn on its instrument suite due to bureaucratic food fights. It’s unclear what, if anything, the services have adopted from TacSat-3 and -4. The ORS Office also made no progress on the launcher side and ended up relying on re-purposed ICBMs, of all things, and their associated multi-month launch delays. Some of the blame for these failures lies with factors beyond the ORS Office’s control. And the amount spent on the ORS Office is a pittance compared to most USG space programs. But failure is still failure. Just because the program focuses on smallsats and is cheap doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a waste of tens of millions of taxpayer dollars.

      Moreover, the ORS Office has largely been left in the dust by other military and commercial initiatives and capabilities. If someone in the DOD needs a quick turnaround launch, they’re better off seeing what comes out of Falcon 9R, LauncherOne, and/or XS-1 than relying on ORS for a new launcher. If someone in DOD needs to rapidly expand or replace lost space communications capabilities they’re probably better off buying more bandwidth from commercial comsats than having ORS (or anyone else) field a new military comsat. If someone in NRO needs to rapidly expand or replace space-imaging capabilities, they’re better off buying imagery from the likes of Planet Labs or Skybox than having ORS (or anyone else) field a new reconnaissance satellite with equivalent or worse spatial and temporal resolution. And if someone in DOD needs to disperse sensors among multiple platforms to make them less vulnerable, they’re probably better off flying as hosted payloads on the Iridiums of the world than having ORS (or anyone else) purpose-build a new satellite platform.

      I hate to say it, but the ORS Office largely falls into the same category as other problem programs — like Ares I, Orion/MPCV, SLS, SOFIA, etc. — that make routine appearances in this forum. While not as grossly expensive as these projects, for most of its life, the ORS Office has been behind schedule, out-of-date, ineffective, and purposeless. And like these other programs, ORS now relies on Congressional pork for its continued existence, instead of Executive Branch customers that want its products.

      The ORS Office does need to be replaced by substantive DOD initiatives outside of DARPA in the smallsat and affordable launch arenas, something the Administration has yet to do. But I agree with the Administration’s move to close the ORS Office. It’s way overdue.

  • E.P. Grondine

    The problem with commenting about defense satellite programs is that we seldom know either the requirements or presently used state of the art technology.

    I view this as a matter to be discussed in closed hearings, and always have. I tried never to help any public analyst in their analysis of any of it.


    So here we are.

    It’s 45 past 11. A measure of time to be sure. On a clock face, mere minutes. On a calendar, a metric in years.

    Four and a half decades past the Apollo 11 moon landing, the accomplishment remains vivid. And worthy of pause to reflect. And to ask, ‘do you know where your manned space program is?’

    Like much of the Cold War relics, mostly in museums. Or lost at sea— or in space. The Apollo command module rests in the foyer of the NASM in Washington. It’s recovery helicopter, #66, rests in the Pacific Ocean, having crashed off San Diego on a training mishap some years after the program ended. And 11’s commander, Neil Armstrong, rests someplace in the Atlantic having passed away nearly two years ago.

    But his footprints live on– on the moon, with Buzz Aldrin’s and will be there for a million years or more. The LM is there as well, one part intact, the other part shattered after rocketing them back off the lunar surface to return with Mike Collins.

    If you are 50 years old, chances are Apollo 11 has little meaning as an event in your life and more likely than not, a paragraph in a history book. If you are 55 or older, it is a towering benchmark, if you took time to notice it in 1969. There were other distraction– Woodstock, the Amazing Mets ans a seemingly endless war raging in Southeast Asia.

    So to the general public, Apollo was a positive distraction near the end of a lousy decade. And for a government project worked with academia and industry, a rarity, coming in ahead of schedule and under budget- albeit a big one- $24 billion in 1970 dollars.

    To be sure, the technologies involved are antiquated by today’s standards, particularly to the young, who have reaped the rewards of the R&D investment from half a century ago. The industries and technologies it spawned are all around us. You know what they are.

    Which makes the accomplishment all the more awesome to contemplate and justify.

    Tonight out family will dim the lights and play an old video of the moonwalk from start to finish. It never ceases to amaze the elderly and trigger questions from the young– chiefly why it’s not in color.

    But still, when it ends, we’ll pause, and look at the clock, and ponder today…. and that it’s 45 past 11. And realize we know where our manned space program is…. right where it has been since the days of Apollo 45 years ago…

    Going in circles, no where, fast.

    • Hiram

      “Going in circles, no where, fast.”

      I guess, to many, it’s all about “going”, as opposed to what we know about how to go. When Apollo went to the Moon, we really knew rather little about what we were doing. We sorta lucked out. Of course, we know vastly more now. The circles we’ve been traveling in have been around targets of understanding and confidence.

      Apollo is, indeed, a towering benchmark … of national exceptionalism, and of upending Soviet pride. It was also a towering benchmark of national investment, and also of poor planning for how that immense investment would play out. We have people who are convinced that we should even now be expending funds at that level, to do things that are only vaguely rationalizable.

      Let me tell you. The technological rewards from that era had nothing to do with footsteps on the Moon. Had $200B in current year dollars been expended on directed R&D, we’d be reaping those same rewards. Probably more, had the investment been better directed. No, I don’t know what those industries and technologies are, that landing on the Moon specifically gave birth to. That’s mostly a myth. The technological sophistication developed with defense funding in the Cold War VASTLY outperformed that from the Moon landings.

      Apollo was a magnificent achievement. But the lessons from it don’t map simply onto current national needs, whether domestic or geopoltical. Leaving footprints on other worlds is not, at root, a national need. By the same token, the Lewis and Clark expedition was a magnificent achievement, and by the same faulty mapping, we ought to be sending platoons of explorers with horses and backpacks across less-explored continents. At least the footprints of Lewis and Clark, while no longer visible, signify an accomplishment that really changed our nation. The footprints of the Apollo astronauts signify a similarly magnificent achievement, that pretty much led nowhere.

      Our reverence for Apollo has to be tempered by the fact that it didn’t really lead to anything that required it. The pyramids of Egypt come to mind. Magnificent achievements, that pretty much ended up as tourist attractions. If we’re careful, those footprints on the Moon will eventually serve the same purpose.

      Enthusiasm about commercial spaceflight is often focused on cost savings. Well, it’s more than that. Our government is presently largely disfunctional. The House and Senate have, for the last decade or more, been astonishingly unproductive about meeting major national needs. To them, rationale is organized along party lines, rather than consensus policy. Cooperation and bipartisanship are long gone. Is that really the government that we can entrust with huge programs to send humans into space, and to preserve those programs over the years? Is this a government that is willing to be truly visionary, in a consensus-driven way? I think not. Kinda sad, really. Even if there were convincing rationale for a hugely expensive Apollo-quality “magnificent achievement” in space, I fear that our government is no longer capable of making it happen. Not even close.

      • Hiram: Our reverence for Apollo has to be tempered by the fact that it didn’t really lead to anything that required it. The pyramids of Egypt come to mind.

        The choice not to benefit from Apollo was just that — a choice. The operations costs of late Apollo missions only cost about two to four times what the LRO cost: we abandoned the system and all the of sunk development costs just as it was beginning to mature, astronauts were accomplishing detailed geological surveys as opposed to visits, and costs were beginning to come down dramatically. Had we continued to fly Apollo missions, their cost would have continued to come down and productivity would have increased, and we would now know a lot more about Earth’s moon than we do today. We made a choice — I would argue the wrong one — to develop the Shuttle and do basic reconnaissance of the rest of the Solar System instead of gaining detailed geological knowledge of Earth’s moon.

        — Donald

  • Fred Willett

    we know where our manned space program is…. right where it has been since the days of Apollo 45 years ago…
    The moral is be careful what technology you choose to develop.
    Lets see. Shuttle. Amazing technology right?
    But there were a few down sides. LEO only.
    $1.5B a flight. But amazing technology, right.
    So we’re stuck
    Going in circles, no where, fast.
    for 45 years.
    The choices we make are important and have consequences.
    Now think carefully. For our next step is SLS really the right choice?


    ORS has actually had some rather striking successes. 0RS 1 proved that smallsats have great utility to the warfighter, and ORS 3 and ORS 4 have convinced senior military leadership that the government can do business differently, leading to lowering the cost of launch services. ORS has actually changed the way people think about space in delivering dividends far beyond the pittance of a price tag paid for the ORS program.

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