Commercial space industry celebrates launch indemnification extension in omnibus spending bill

While most of the space-related discussion about the omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2014 passed by Congress this week focused on the relatively favorable spending levels for NASA in the bill, the legislation also included another benefit for the commercial launch industry. The legislative vehicle used for the omnibus spending package was HR 3547, a bill originally introduced in the House in November to extend the third-party liability indemnification regime for commercial launches by one year. The Senate amended that bill last month to instead provide a three-year extension, which was left in the final bill (with the appropriations package added) passed by both houses this week.

During the House debate on the omnibus bill earlier this week, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science Committee and sponsor of the original version of HR 3547, mentioned that provision of the bill rather than its appropriations sections. “The three-year extension of the risk-sharing system in the bill today will help the commercial space industry and our economy,” he said. “For the next three years, space launch providers will have the stability and assurance they need to compete in the international market.” While his original bill only provided a one-year extension, he had made clear in earlier debate about the bill that he preferred a longer extension, accepting a one-year version to win support of House Democrats who wanted a short-term extension to more broadly study issues associated with indemnification.

Industry organizations embraced the three-year extension in the bill. The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a statement about the overall bill, praised the extension as a measure that helps the US commercial launch industry remain competitive against foreign providers. CSF chairman Stu Witt noted the commercial launch earlier this month of a communication satellite for a Thai company, Thaicom, by SpaceX. “The foreign satellite launch was won in a competitive market that includes overseas launch companies, many of which enjoy more robust third-party liability.”

“A consistent and effective third-party launch indemnification regime allows U.S. commercial satellite launch service providers to compete more effectively in the international marketplace,” said Patricia Cooper, president of the Satellite Industry Association (SIA), in a separate statement about the indemnification extension. “It is an important step in maintaining U.S. innovation and leadership in satellite launch and aids overall access to space.”

It’s unclear if the three-year extension will take pressure off Congress to perform a more detailed review of commercial launch regulations, including a reauthorization and update of the Commercial Space Launch Act, that had been proposed by some in Congress to take up in 2014. The industry, though is spared having to once again scramble for an extension at the end of 2014, as it had to in 2012 and 2013. In a presentation about issues associated with commercial spaceflight liability at the International Academy of Astronautics Space Exploration Conference in Washington on January 9, Matt Schaefer, director of the University of Nebraska’s Space, Cyber and Telecommunications Law Program, said the industry needed some near-term stability. “Having this indemnification regime expire every 12 months is just a really silly way for the US, which is the single largest user of space, to act.”

Briefly: Fattah endorses ISS extension; Dryden renaming bill becomes law

The announcement last week by the Obama Administration that it seeks to extend the life of the International Space Station to at least 2024, which already has the support of a number of members of Congress, received the support of another key member earlier this week. Speaking at the AIAA SciTech 2014 conference Monday outside Washington, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), ranking member of the commerce, justice, and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, also backed the planned extension. “I support the continuation of the International Space Station up through 2024, and I hope that our international partners will join with us in this effort,” he said in a plenary address at the conference. He also expressed continued backing of NASA’s commercial cargo and crew programs to support ISS operations.

On Thursday, President Obama signed into law HR 667, legislation that renames NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center after Neil Armstrong. The bill, introduced in the House and passed there last February, was approved in the Senate by unanimous consent last week. In a statement late Thursday, NASA said that a timeline to implement the name change is being developed, but did not give an estimated date for completing that effort, nor the cost to replace signage, documentation, and other items affected by the name change.

NASA: upcoming senior review won’t pit Cassini versus Curiosity

Many in the planetary science community, and space advocates in general, have been dreading the upcoming “Senior Review” later this year of ongoing NASA planetary missions. This biennial process examines those missions that have completed their primary missions to determine which should continue, and at what funding levels. The concern is that the funding available to support those missions is projected to remain flat, while a new large mission—the Mars rover Curiosity, which completes its primary mission later this year—joins the pool of missions competing for that money. That has created the perception of a competition between Curiosity and an existing large flagship mission, the Saturn orbiter Cassini, with only enough money to fund one of those missions.

Last week, a senior NASA official denied that was the case. “That’s inaccurate,” said Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary science division, at a meeting last week of the Small Bodies Assessment Group (SBAG) in Washington when asked about reports that only one of those two flagship missions could be continued. That review will involve some “tough decisions,” he acknowledged, but that does not mean shutting off missions entirely. “I’d rather not do that to any of the planetary missions,” he said. “Some missions may be funded at a higher level than other missions” based on priorities established in the senior review.

Green offered a similar message earlier this week to another group of scientists, the Outer Planets Assessment Group (OPAG), meeting in Tucson. Other scientific divisions at NASA, notably heliophysics, deals with such reviews by ending some missions entirely, a process Green said he’d like to avoid. “Each and every one of those [planetary] missions may not be funded at the current level that are funded at right now,” he said. “Some may be at a lower level.”

That environment, Green said, means that ongoing missions will need to be creative in figuring out how to continue their missions, or some aspects of them, for less than they’re receiving today. “It’s a very tough environment, so everyone needs to sharpen their pencils and really think about the science that can be accomplished,” he said at OPAG.

The process of the senior review itself is still coming together, with one big uncertainty: how much money will be available for continuing missions. Bill Knopf, lead program executive for mission operations in the planetary sciences division at NASA Headquarters, told OPAG that a “guideline narrative” for the senior review will be released to projects by the end of this month. Those guidelines, though, will not include budget levels, which will wait until the release of the administration’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal, not expected until at least late February. Proposals from the various missions will be due in April, with results announced in June.

“We’re working on not as much information as we’d like to have right now,” Knopf said, referring to the unknown level of the fiscal year 2015 budget. “Hopefully, the President will issue his budget in February.”

Those statements by NASA officials, though, may not be completely reassuring to scientists. The reliance on the FY2015 budget proposal for setting spending levels for the senior review could be problematic, as the administration sought significant cuts in planetary spending in both its FY13 and FY14 budget proposals, cuts partially offset by Congress in the final spending bills for those years. In a statement earlier this week about the final FY14 appropriations bill, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said he heard “disquieting rumors” about cuts in the planetary science program in the FY15 proposal, including “shutting down some current missions.”

Those involved in Cassini—which continues to be perceived as the mission most in jeopardy during the senior review, given its cost and age—made the case for continuing the mission at OPAG. “Cassini is an investment not to be wasted,” Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, said in a presentation to OPAG. Flying the mission though its planned end in September 2017 would cost about $180 million, or $60 million a year, and perform science that otherwise could likely not be accomplished for decades. “To waste it would be unthinkable.”

Cassini, some believe, could also be at a disadvantage if asked to continue the mission with reduced funding, since it has already had to tighten its belt during past reviews: Spilker said Cassini’s budget went from $80 million to $60 million a year in the previous senior review in 2012 even though it was considered fully funded. Those kinds of challenges await NASA and ongoing planetary missions this year. “The cold reality,” said Knopf, “is that we have only so much money to go around.”

With a budget in place, House members plan to return to NASA authorization bill

Now that the fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill is all but done, and a two-year budget deal in place as well, the House Science Committee is planning to revisit a controversial NASA authorization bill. Appearing on a public policy panel at the 22rd meeting of the American Astronomical Society last week outside Washington, Chris Shank, policy director of the committee, said the bipartisan budget deal reached last month is key to moving ahead on the authorization bill. “That budget agreement sets a framework, an environment, which we can now operate under,” he said, adding they would be “pushing forward” later this month and next month on the authorization bill.

Speaking at a Space Transportation Association reception on Capitol Hill last night, committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) confirmed that desire to restart work on the authorization bill, which has been stalled since the bill passed the committee on a party-line vote in July. “I don’t have any explanation why it was partisan. It should not have been,” he said of the July committee vote. “We get a second shot at that now that we’ve solved the sequestration-level funding, so I am hoping we can come up with a more bipartisan bill.”

McKeon’s retirement opens the door for a commercial space advocate

According to multiple reports yesterday, Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, has decided not to run for reelection in 2014. McKeon has not made a formal announcement of his plans, although there had been rumors for weeks that the congressman, first elected to his southern California seat in 1992, would retire.

If McKeon does retire, it likely means that a state legislator with a strong interest in commercial space issues will run for the position. State Sen. Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) had previously indicated an interest in running for the seat, but only if McKeon didn';t run again. Knight already has a campaign website but as yet no formal declaration of his intent to run. Knight, the son of former state senator and X-15 pilot Pete Knight, has been an advocate of the state’s commercial space industry during his time in Sacramento. He has introduced legislation to expand the state’s liability protections for commercial space activities to include suppliers and manufacturers (a bill approved by a Senate committee earlier this week) as well as provide sales tax exemptions related to the development of space vehicles.

Reactions to NASA’s fiscal year 2014 appropriation

A number of observers were surprised that NASA did as well as it did in the omnibus fiscal year 2014 spending bill, with its overall appropriation of $17.65 billion falling just about $70 million short of the administration’s original request. Although some programs did better than others (space technology, for example, saw its request cut by nearly a quarter in the final fill), the reaction in general to the bill has been positive by the administration, members of Congress, and others.

“Your hard work – and the plan you’ve been working hard to execute – has clearly been acknowledged and recognized under the funding bill unveiled yesterday by Congress,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a message to agency employees Tuesday. The bill, he said, supported the broad portfolio of NASA activities, from the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion to efforts to “formulate” the agency’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (although there was some critical language about the ARM in the report accompanying the bill.) “The message from our nation’s leaders today is simple and straightforward: keep doing what you’re doing to keep the United States the world leader in space.”

Richard DalBello of the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy also offered some positive words about NASA’s appropriations in comments at the beginning of panel discussion about space technology policy at the AIAA SciTech 2014 conference outside Washington, DC, Tuesday morning. “We got a NASA budget last night. It looks pretty darn good,” he said, adding that he had not yet had a chance to make a detailed review of the bill’s contents. “A lot of important things seem to have been protected, and that’s positive, because that means we’re on the same page with Congress.”

Some members of Congress appeared to be on the same page in their assessment of the NASA budget. “This is a big win,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in a statement about the NASA budget Tuesday. His statement specifically noted the nearly $700 million for commercial crew and sufficient funding for the SLS to keep it (or “the monster rocket,” as the statement calls it, a term that Nelson has frequently used for the SLS but which also has been used pejoratively by its critics) “on track.”

Another supporter of the bill’s funding for SLS is Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “I am pleased that this legislation includes the funding necessary to continue the great work underway in Huntsville on the Space Launch System,” he said in a statement provided to the Huntsville Times. “If we are to maintain our leadership role in human space flight, we must continue to make SLS a priority in NASA’s budget. I will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that.”

The uptick in spending for NASA’s planetary science program also generated praise from another member of Congress. “I am pleased that the spending bill contains strong funding for the continued development of the Mars 2020 rover and for a mission to Jupiter and its moon Europa,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) in a statement. “I hope that this will dissuade the Administration from putting forward a 2015 budget that again seeks to cut funding for NASA’s pathbreaking exploration of our solar system.” However, he adds in the statement that he’s heard “disquieting rumors” that the fiscal year 2015 budget proposal will include such cuts, including “possible delays to the next two Mars missions and shutting down some current missions.” That last comment appears to be a reference to the agency’s upcoming “Senior Review” of ongoing planetary science missions, and concerns that there won’t be enough money to keep all of those missions, especially Cassini, operating after 2014.

The Planetary Society also endorsed the funding for planetary science in the bill, although lamenting that the $1.345 billion provided still falls below the $1.5 billion the program enjoyed back in 2012. It particularly supported the $80 million specifically earmarked in the bill for studies of a potential Europa mission, funding not requested by the administration. “Exploring Europa is no longer a ‘should’ but a ‘must,'” the society’s Casey Dreier said in the statement. “The White House should embrace this bold search for life and request a new start for this mission in FY2015.”

In a separate blog post, The Planetary Society also called attention to language in the report accompanying the bill about NASA’s “reprogramming and transfer authorities” that the agency uses to redirect funding among programs. Those authorities, the report states, “exist so that NASA can respond to unexpected, exigent circumstances that may arise during the fiscal year, not so that NASA can pursue its internal priorities at the expense of congressional direction. If NASA persists in abusing its reprogramming and transfer authorities, those authorities will be eliminated in future appropriations acts.” The Planetary Society saw that as a rebuke to NASA’s efforts in 2013 to redirect, through its operating plan, additional funds allocated by Congress for planetary science to other programs, an effort Congress rejected.

How other space-related items fared in the FY14 spending bill

While NASA did relatively well in the omnibus spending bill, at least at the overall spending level, some other space-related programs did not fare as well. Space News reports some key military space programs got less than what they requested for fiscal year 2014. The Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program received $1.5 billion, $367 million less than the administration’s request. The SBIRS missile warning system, Space Situational Awareness program, and GPS program also received between about $50 and 90 million less than originally requested. The Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, preserved by the defense authorization bill last month, would get a modest $10 million in the bill. Funding for the ORS Office has not been included in the budget request as the Air Force sought to close it.

NOAA’s two weather satellite development programs, the GOES-R geostationary satellite and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) polar satellite, were each funded at the administration’s request: $954.8 million for GOES-R and $824 million for JPSS. The report accompanying the bill noted that those programs, which have suffered development issues, “are proceeding well and being effectively executed.” However, the reported added continued concern about “program fragility” and concerns about a gap in polar satellite data. “The Committees expect NOAA to present a strategy with the fiscal year 2015 budget that fully addresses both the short- and long-term challenges associated with the gap and fragility of the program,” the report states.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation received $16.011 million in the omnibus bill (out of a total budget for FAA operations of $9.65 billion), the same amount in the administration’s request.

Omnibus bill gives NASA $17.65 billion (and launch indemnification extension as well)

Late Monday evening, House and Senate appropriations formally released their joint omnibus bill to fund the federal government for fiscal year 2014. For NASA, the bill provides the agency with $17.646 billion, a decrease of less than $70 million from the administration’s original proposal and a billion dollars more than what House appropriators approved last summer. The table below compares the original request, the House and Senate bills from last summer, and the final omnibus numbers:

Account White House House CJS Senate CJS Omnibus
SCIENCE $5,017.8 $4,781.0 $5,154.2 $5,151.2
- Earth Science $1,846.0 $1,659.0 $1,846.2 $1,826.0
- Planetary Science $1,218.0 $1,315.0 $1,317.6 $1,345.0
- Astrophysics $642.0 $622.0 $678.4 $668.0
- JWST $658.0 $584.0 $658.2 $658.2
- Heliophysics $654.0 $601.0 $653.8 $654.0
SPACE TECHNOLOGY $742.6 $576.0 $670.1 $576.0
AERONAUTICS $565.7 $566.0 $558.7 $566.0
EXPLORATION SYSTEMS $3,915.5 $3,612.0 $4,209.3 $4,113.2
- SLS/Orion $2,730.0 $2,825.0 $3,118.2 $3,115.2
- Commercial Spaceflight $821.0 $500.0 $775.0 $696.0
- Exploration R&D $364.0 $287.0 $316.1 $302.0
SPACE OPERATIONS $3,882.9 $3,670.0 $3,882.9 $3,778.0
- ISS $3,049.0 $2,860.0 $3,049.1 n/a
- Space and Flight Support $834.0 $810.0 $833.8 n/a
EDUCATION $94.2 $122.0 $116.6 $116.6
CROSS AGENCY SUPPORT $2,850.3 $2,711.0 $2,793.6 $2,793.0
CONSTRUCTION $609.4 $525.0 $586.9 $515.0
INSPECTOR GENERAL $37.0 $35.3 $38.0 $37.5
TOTAL $17,715.4 $16,598.3 $18,010.3 $17,646.5

Some comments regarding some of the hot topics during the budget debate:

Planetary Science: Planetary science gets an increase of $127 million over the administration’s request. However, the bill retains a provision in the House bill that sets aside $80 million for “pre-formulation and/or formulation activities” for a Europa mission that was not in the administration’s request. (The final FY13 bill had a similar earmark.) That means planetary sciences gets only a very modest increase over the administration’s request. The report accompanying the bill, though, does press NASA to increase the rate of Discovery-class missions, including releasing an announcement of opportunity (AO) for the next such mission no later than May 1, selecting one or more missions by September 2015.

Commercial Crew: The omnibus bill provides $696 million for commercial crew in FY14, a number closer to the Senate’s proposed $775 million than the House’s $500 million, but will short of the administration’s request $821 million. NASA officials had previous said they need full funding to keep the program on track to begin crewed flights to the International Space Station in 2017.

The bill sets aside about a quarter of that $696 million, $171 million, until NASA “has certified that the commercial crew program has undergone an independent benefit-cost analysis that takes into consideration the total Federal investment in the commercial crew program and the expected operational life of the International Space Station.” The report accompanying the bill notes that the uncertainty about the lifetime of the ISS “has a substantial impact on planning and financial requirements” for the commercial crew program that the report seeks to address. (The report does not mention plans announced last week by the White House and NASA seeking to extend operations of the ISS to at least 2024; in any case, it will take perhaps years before the partners decide whether to support such an extension.)

SLS and Orion: Those programs come out as winners in the omnibus bill, with the Space Launch System receiving $1.6 billion, Orion nearly $1.2 billion, and Exploration Ground Systems (primarily facilities supporting the SLS) $318 million. “Adequate funding for SLS, a top NASA priority, is necessary to support program goals, preserve progress already made toward achieving the upcoming test flight and maintain a schedule that supports accomplishing an initial operating capability in 2017,” the report accompanying the bill states. “Due to continuing concerns regarding the diversion of funding intended for vehicle development to activities with only tangential relevance to SLS, NASA shall not use SLS funds for engineering or other activities that are not directly related to SLS vehicle development.”

Space Operations: Neither the bill nor the report include breakouts for ISS and other spending within this account, but the report states that it “maintains strong support for the ISS” while mentioning “operational and financial concerns” discussed in previous House and Senate bills. The bill sets aside $100 million for a satellite servicing program, and the report includes a provision directing NASA to propose policies or legislation that address intellectual property concerns regarding ISS research.

Asteroid Redirection Mission (ARM): The House appropriations bill included a provision blocking spending on projects associated with the ARM, while the Senate was silent on the issue. The final report accompanying the bill does not include a specific ban, but instead more of a cautionary note about the proposed mission. “While the ARM is still an emerging concept, NASA has not provided Congress with satisfactory justification materials such as detailed cost estimates or impacts to ongoing missions. The completion of significant preliminary activities is needed to appropriately lay the groundwork for the ARM prior to NASA and Congress making a long-term commitment to this mission concept.”

Commercial launch liability indemnification: The omnibus budget bill also includes something of a bonus for the space community. As is often the case with such bills, legislators use an existing pending, but unrelated, bill as a vehicle for the appropriations, including the appropriations language as an amendment. In this case, the House is using HR 3547, a bill that extends the commercial launch liability indemnification regime. The House passed the original HR 3547 in December, extending the regime by one year, while the Senate amended the bill later last month, changing the one-year extension to a three-year one. That extension, in its three-year form, is preserved in the amended bill that is now primarily a vehicle for passing the omnibus spending bill.

Senate passes bill renaming NASA Dryden after Neil Armstrong

A bill passed by the House nearly a year ago—and since all but forgotten—to rename one of NASA’s centers is now on the verge of becoming law. On Wednesday, the Senate passed via unanimous consent HR 667, legislation that would rename NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center the “Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center.” The bill would also rename the Western Aeronautical Test Range the “Hugh L. Dryden Aeronautical Test Range,” preserving the Dryden name.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), the House Majority Whip whose district includes Dryden, introduced the bill last February, where it passed on a 394-0 vote late that month. The Senate, though, had taken no action on the bill until its passage by unanimous consent, and without floor debate, on Wednesday. It wasn’t clear why the Senate acted now, more than ten months after the House passed the bill. McCarthy, though, was pleased. “I’m honored that the Senate has passed my legislation, which will now go to the President’s desk for his signature that recognizes the rich history of Neil Armstrong and Hugh Dryden in Kern County and the Antelope Valley,” he said in a brief statement after the Senate passed the bill.

Congress may need a little more time to complete FY14 appropriations

With the current continuing resolution (CR) funding the US government expiring on January 15, those wondering what the final fiscal year 2014 appropriations bill would look like had expected to learn more by the end of this week, in order to provide enough time to allow the House and Senate to pass the omnibus spending bills. However, it looks like people will have to wait just a little while longer.

On Thursday, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, said that omnibus appropriations bill probably won’t be completed in time to pass Congress before the CR expires on the 15th. Instead, he said that a mini-CR—funding the government through the end of next week—would likely be needed to give Congress time to pass the bill, which should be ready for consideration by the 15th. Rogers declined to specify the issues that were delaying work on the appropriations bill; reports last week indicated the commerce, justice, and science section of the bill, which funds NASA, NSF, and NOAA, was one of several that had already been completed.