As expected, the House of Representatives approved Wednesday HR 6586, legislation to extend the commercial launch indemnification system by two years, to the end of 2014. The legislation, considered under suspension of the rules, passed by a voice vote after a brief debate, during which no one rose in opposition to the bill. Among those speaking in favor of the bill were the primary sponsor, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), current House Science Committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), and two of the members seeking to succeed him, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX). (Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), the third candidate for the chairmanship, did not speak.)
While those speakers discussed the need for indemnification to continue, another speaker suggested the current system should be revised over the next two years. “Congress has not updated the program since its inception in 1988. This has resulted in an increased liability exposure for the US taxpayer, and that exposure grows every year,” said Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL). He was referring to the provision that adjusts the original $1.5-billion cap on government liabilities at the rate of inflation; it’s now approximately $2.7 billion. “I am concerned that taxpayer liability is exposure is growing at the same time the industry and its associated insurance market is maturing.” Costello said he didn’t oppose the bill, but hopes that issue will be addressed before the latest extension expires in 2014.
Costello won’t be around to work on the issue he identified: he is retiring this year. However, in a statement issued after the House passed the legislation, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the ranking member of the House Science Committee, did mention the need to perhaps modify the indemnification system in the next Congress. “There are important issues that need to be considered as we move forward, relative to the future character of the liability regime,” she said, without specifying them. “We don’t really have time to address these issues in what remains of this Congress, but I hope we’ll give them thoughtful and comprehensive attention before the next extension is necessary in 2014.”
The House of Representatives will vote today on a bill that provides a two-year extension to the existing commercial launch indemnification system. HR 6586 was introduced last Friday by Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, with six co-sponsors, including full committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) and the three men seeking to succeed him: Reps. Dana Rohrbacher (R-CA), James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), and Lamar Smith (R-TX). The bill is one of several the House will consider later today under suspension of the rules, an expedited process for non-controversial legislation.
The bill is a “clean” extension of the indemnification regime: the text of the legislation does nothing more than extend the period indemnification is in place from the end of 2012 to the end of 2014. Some past bills have included additional provisions, typically studies about the utility of the indemnification regime, which protects commercial launch operators from third-party damage claims in excess of “maximum probable loss” companies must insure against. The Senate has yet to act on an indemnification extension; last month, a House staffer warned that the Senate may seek to incorporate additional, unspecified provisions to an extension.
A day after Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) formally declared his interest in becoming the next chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, another candidate threw his hat into the ring. On Thursday, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) declared his interest in the position, as expected, joining Sensenbrenner and Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX).
Rohrabacher, whose experience on the committee includes eight years as chairman of the space subcommittee, said space would be a priority for him if selected as chairman, specifically, “making certain NASA has a real, achievable plan for near-term human space exploration.” Rohrabacher is best known as a staunch advocate of commercial space and critical of big government programs, including the Space Launch System (SLS). In past statements, such as a press release about the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget request, he likened the SLS to the Titanic and said that “continuing to shovel resources into the SLS money pit is a travesty.”
Rohrabacher also makes the case in his statement for the chairmanship by noting his experience on the committee: “Going into the 113th Congress, Rep. Rohrabacher will have the most years of active experience on the Committee, excluding those who have already been Chairman.” Of course, one of the other members seeking the chairmanship, Sensenbrenner, served as chairman of the committee from 1997 until 2001.
The day after 2012 general election, a campaign of a different sort formally got underway: the race to chair the House Science Committee. With current chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) term-limited by House Republican rules from remaining the chairman, three members are vying to take over the position. On Wednesday, Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI)—the current committee vice-chairman who also chaired the committee from 1997 until 2001—formally announced his candidacy for the job.
“I am seeking the chairmanship for the House Science Committee because our nation’s science and space policy is at a critical juncture,” he said in a statement. Later, he specifically cited NASA and commercial space policy as an area of interest to him: “Specifically, we must responsibly fund our research and development programs, refocus NASA and foster the developing private space industry, and put the United States back on a path toward being a leader in STEM education.”
Sensenbrenner is expected to face competition from two other members: Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Lamar Smith (R-TX). Smith currentlt chairs the House Judiciary Committee but, like Hall, is being term-limited out of that position. He confirmed to The Hill that he’s interested in seeking the science committee chairmanship, putting an emphasis on space issues. “It is important that NASA have a unifying mission,” he said. “Even though it has been almost 40 years since man last set foot on the moon, we should continue to shoot for the stars.”
Last night’s results indicated that something close to the status quo will reign in space policy in the near future. The balance of power remains unchanged: the Obama Administration will be in office for the next four years, while the Senate remains in Democratic hands and the House in Republican hands for the next two. There will be some second-order changes: ScienceInsider notes that about a fourth of the House Science Committee’s current membership won’t be back next year, and the committee will need a new chairman with Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) term-limited under Republican rules. And there will also be speculation about changes at NASA, including how long current administrator Charles Bolden will remain on the job.
However, just because there hasn’t been any major changes on either end of Pennslyvania Avenue doesn’t mean, as a SPACE.com article put it today, that “NASA will likely continue along its current path” towards a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025. While that goal may remain on the books, the ability of NASA to achieve that goal will strongly depend on what happens over the next eight weeks regarding negotiations about the 2013 budget and efforts to avoid sequestration. Without a deal, eight weeks from today—January 2, 2013—the automatic spending cuts known as sequestration will go into effect, cutting NASA’s budget by over eight percent. Even if a deal is reached, the space agency may face spending cuts, although likely in a more targeted fashion than those implemented by sequestration. Those cuts could certainly impede NASA’s ability to continue on its current path. In other words, don’t look too far ahead just yet.
Former NASA astronaut Jose Hernández (D) failed in his bid to represent California’s 10th district in the House of Representatives, losing to incumbent Rep. Jeff Denham (R) 54-46%. Hernández also lost to Denham in the district’s open primary in June, finishing a distant second with several other candidates on the ballot; the margin in the general election was smaller. The race was a “caustic” campaign, in the words of local newspaper the Modesto Bee, with money from national campaign funds flowing into the race.
Down in southern California, Rep. Brad Sherman (D) easily won reelection over fellow Rep. Howard Berman (D) in a rare general election between two incumbents of the same party. Both candidates for Calfornia’s 30th district have been active on export control reform issues for the space industry in the past.
Two-time former congressman Nick Lampson (D) is losing in his bid to return to Congress, where he served on the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee. CNN has called the election for the 14th district for his opponent, Randy Weber (R); Weber was leading 54-45% with a little over half the vote in.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), running in perhaps the biggest space-related Congressional race in this campaign, appears to be cruising to victory tonight. With a little over 50% of the votes tallied, Nelson had a 57-41% lead over Rep. Connie Mack IV (R-FL), his Republican challenger. CNN has already declared him the winner, as has the Tampa Bay Times. With the retirement of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), with whom Nelson had worked on a variety of space policy issues, Nelson will effectively be the leading voice on space issues in the Senate in the next Congress.
Regardless of the outcome of today’s election, there will be some key challenges for space policy in the next four years. Can NASA’s current approach to human spaceflight and space exploration be sustained given the nation’s fiscal challenges? If not, what should replace it? At a forum last week on Capitol Hill organized by the Marshall Institute, panelists offered their own prescriptions for a revamped, more sustainable approach to space exploration.
“Right now, I fear that our national leadership is on the verge of canceling all deep space human exploration,” warned Charles Miller, president of NextGen Space LLC and the former senior advisor for commercial space at NASA. “We are on the edge of a cliff. No matter who wins, we are probably looking at a return to a Clinton-era policy where human spaceflight is the ISS and only the ISS. Deep space exploration is on the verge of being deferred for another decade as a luxury we can’t afford.”
Miller, in his speech (his prepared remarks are published in this week’s issue of The Space Review) argued that the “why” of space exploration should be to expand human civilization (featuring free markets and free people) across the solar system. He warned, though, that this goal alone wasn’t sufficient to merit support from the American public. “This was Newt Gingrich’s mistake in Florida in late January,” Miller said. “Newt mistook the repeated standing ovations he received from the hundreds of space industry people in that room in Florida for something that the far larger electorate cared about. We all need to learn from his mistake.”
He called for a “pragmatic” alternative strategy that he outlined in a five-point plan that leverages the capability of the private sector, particularly in commercial space transportation, and alternative contracting models like that used in NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. That, he argued, had national security as well as commercial and exploration benefits. “Our national security is harmed because US launch vehicles are more expensive, and less reliable, because they fly less often,” he said. “Our national security is harmed when it depends on Russian rocket engines.”
Two other panelists, while not offering plans as detailed as Miller’s, also made the case for more pragmatic approaches for space exploration. “I am very concerned about calls for bold missions,” said Adkins, president of Adkins Strategies, LLC and a former staff director of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee. “I’m worried that a bold vision that says that you have to do something like Apollo is akin to swinging for the fences, where, yes, you might get a home run, but it’s more likely you’re going to strike out, particularly in this environment.”
Any program, Adkins said, needs to be broken up into smaller, more feasible steps—“singles, doubles, and triples” in his analogy—to maintain momentum. “I think the greatest threat to human space exploration is to continue to have unrealistic expectations and to continue to go nowhere.”
James Vedda, author of the recent book Becoming Spacefarers (reviewed here), argued for the importance of building up infrastructure to sustain human exploration and development over the long term. He noted that the settlement of the American West didn’t really take off until some key infrastructure, such as railroads and telegraphs, were put in place starting in the mid 19th century. “The same is going to be true for space development,” he said.
“What we did in Apollo was brilliant; it achieved its goals,” Vedda said. “But it was not something put in place to spread humanity across the solar system.” To accomplish that goal, he said, we need to move to turn cislunar space into an “industrial park,” building up experience and also creating value that can lead to the next steps. “We don’t want to do this like an athletic competition, where you have this finish line” after which you go home. “We want to have things that have staying power.”
Beyond Miller’s five-point plan the panelists didn’t propose much in the way of specific initiatives to implement the changes they would like to see. None saw the need for major structural policy changes, like the creation of a new National Space Council. In addition, a NASA-specific BRAC to reduce the agency’s overhead might be useful but would be a “political nonstarter,” as Adkins put it. He did suggest it may be more feasible to do a “federal BRAC” involving NASA and other agencies, like the Department of Energy and NIST. “At the end of it, NASA could be a net beneficiary,” he suggested.
“These are very challenging times. There is a path through this,” Adkins said. “Budget will constrain policy and drive it.”