New year, old issues

The beginning of a new year is a time for change: at the very least, putting up those 2014 calendars and tossing the 2013 versions into the recycle bin. However, as 2014 begins, it will look at least initially a lot like 2013 for space policy, as Congress deals with some unfinished business regarding spending and other legislation.

The biggest near-term priority for Congress when it returns next week will be fiscal year 2014 appropriations. While the budget deal reached last month set overall spending levels for 2014 and 2015, avoiding sequestration in the process, it’s still up to House and Senate appropriators to come up with a bill or bills to appropriate that money before the continuing resolution (CR) funding the government expires on January 15. POLITICO reported earlier this week that appropriators have been working on a single omnibus appropriations bill that is expected to be finalized next week.

Details about the bill aren’t included in that report, although it does state that the section covering commerce, justice, and science—including NASA and NOAA—is among those “largely finalized.” For NASA, that likely means falling somewhere between the $16.6 billion House appropriators approved and the $18 billion from their Senate counterparts.

Although many space advocates argue that policy should drive the budget, it’s likely the opposite will remain true. The House appropriations bill, for example, blocks any spending on NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, while the Senate is silent on it. The two bills also have significant differences in the amount available for Commercial Crew, which could drive decisions later in 2014 on how many companies NASA can support in the next phase of the program when it awards contract(s) this summer.

Besides appropriations, there is space-related legislation awaiting action. The year 2013 ended without enactment of a bill to extend the commercial launch indemnification regime. In mid-December the Senate passed an amended version of a bill the House passed in early December, changing the House’s one-year extension to a three-year one. However, the House had adjourned for the year by the time the Senate took action. Launch licenses currently in place, or applications submitted by December 31, still have indemnification protection, but any new applications would not be included in the regime—at least until the House and Senate get around resolving their differences.

Also awaiting the House is legislation approved by the House Science Committee last month to stop NASA from withholding funds for termination liability for several key agency programs. The bill would also effectively make it impossible to cancel those programs—the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft, International Space Station, and James Webb Space Telescope—unless Congress passes legislation to do so. The bill’s future, though, is uncertain, even if it passes the House: it’s unlikely the administration would support a bill that would, in essence, take control over the future of several key programs out of its hands.

And, if members are feeling really ambitious, they might take up the NASA authorization bills they started working on in 2013. The Senate Commerce Committee passed its version in late July on a party-line vote, after the House Science Committee approved its quite different version earlier in the month, also along party lines. Neither bill has made progress since then, and with the sharp differences in opinion both in authorized spending levels and policy, the bills might remain in legislative limbo indefinitely.

Poll reveals gender, racial, and other gaps in support for funding NASA

Earlier this month, the polling group YouGov released the results of a recent poll on space issues. The poll covered a hodgepodge of topics, from reasons for supporting NASA to whether the poll respondent would be interested in flying in space “free of costs.” One question of interest was on NASA funding: “The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) budget for 2014 is $16 billion, its lowest level since 2007. Do you think NASA’s budget is…” with the options of much too high, too high, about right, too low, and much too low. (The question is slightly incorrect: NASA’s fiscal year 2014 appropriations have not been set yet, and it is likely to get a little more than $16 billion, with the passage of a two-year overall budget deal that avoids sequestration.)

The overall poll results indicate that the majority believe NASA is getting about the right amount of funding or too little:

Much too high 11%
Too high 12%
About right 39%
Too low 25%
Much too low 13%

However, YouGov also provides detailed poll results, which break down the overall numbers (based on a survey of 1,170 adults in late November; margins of error are not included) into various categories based on the poll respondents’ ages, genders, location, and other factors. Those breakdowns reveal some interesting, but perhaps not that surprising, gaps in support.

One such gap is between men and women. Nearly half of men polled thought NASA funding was too low, while women were split almost equally between thinking NASA was getting too much or too little:

Male Female
too high 20% 26%
about right 34% 45%
too low 47% 29%

(In this and subsequent tables, the “too high” and “much too high” responses are combined, as are “too low” and “much too low” to simplify the results.)

Another gap is on race: 44% those who identified themselves as white said NASA’s budget was too low, versus 22% who thought it was too high. However, responses among blacks were almost the reverse: 34% thought NASA’s budget was too high, versus 14% who thought it too low. Hispanics, meanwhile, were more evenly split.

White Black Hispanic Other
too high 22% 34% 21% 18%
about right 34% 52% 52% 40%
too low 44% 14% 27% 42%

Another gap in support in NASA spending is based on education. For those who said they had a high school education or less, there was an even split between those who thought NASA’s budget was too high versus those who thought it too low. However, as education levels increased, the fraction who thought NASA’s budget was too high declined, while the fraction who thought it too low increased—an argument, perhaps, for NASA education efforts?

High school or less Some college College Grad Post Grad
too high 28% 24% 14% 11%
about right 43% 37% 37% 34%
too low 28% 39% 49% 55%

There was also a trend in NASA support based household income: those making less than $40,000 a year were more likely to think NASA’s current budget was too high than those making $80,000 or more a year (a trend likely correlated to some degree with education levels):

Under $40K $40–80K More than $80K Prefer not to say
too high 27% 24% 18% 17%
about right 42% 37% 36% 38%
too low 30% 39% 46% 44%

It’s always tempting to read more into a single poll’s results than is recommended, given the limitations of polling and the sensitivity of poll results to how questions are structured: what if, for example, the YouGov poll had used NASA’s fraction of the overall federal budget versus a dollar amount? However, the poll suggests that while support for NASA may generally be positive, it is not evenly distributed.

While members of Congress raise concerns about China’s lunar mission, many Americans are uninterested

One week ago, China’s Chang’e-3 spacecraft successfully landed on the surface of the Moon and, soon after, deployed a small rover named “Yutu” to explore the lunar terrain. As that mission proceeds, China is making plans for a 2017 lunar sample return mission and, at some ill-defined time after that, human missions to the Moon. Should the United States be concerned about China’s lunar ambitions and respond accordingly? A couple of members of Congress believe so. reported Thursday that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), the chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, sent a letter to President Obama calling on him to redirect NASA once again, back to the Moon. As China carries out its lunar exploration program, Wolf’s letter states, “many are asking why the U.S. is not using this opportunity to lead our international parters in an American-led return to the Moon.”

Wolf argues there’s limited enthusiasm for NASA’s plans to redirect an asteroid into lunar orbit and send a human mission there in the 2020s, lamenting the “misguided focus” of the administration on such a mission. “It’s time to set aside the proposed asteroid mission and instead focus NASA’s direction on leading a return to the Moon, before our partners commit their resources to another country,” Wolf writes. He asks the president to convene a conference at the White House “early in the new year” to develop a plan for a US-led human return to the Moon in the next ten years. “This is a sincere good faith request which I know would be good for the country. Thank you,” Wolf wrote in a handwritten addendum at the end of the letter.

There is, in fact, a space exploration conference coming to Washington, albeit not the White House, next month, as notes. The International Academy of Astronautics is hosting a space exploration conference in January 9, followed by a heads of space agencies summit on the 10th. However, this event is unlikely to result in any agreement on an exploration program like the one desired by Rep. Wolf.

One industry organization has already backed Wolf’s call for a White House space exploration conference. “The Coalition for Space Exploration encourages the proposal to hold a conference early in the new year to develop a mission-oriented plan for a U.S.-led exploration program to send humans to Mars using the SLS and Orion systems, augmented by other systems and technologies contributed by our international partners,” the organization said in a press release late Friday not yet posted on its website. The Coalition’s statement, though, fell short of explicitly endorsing Wolf’s call for a human return to the Moon led by the US in the next decade.

Wolf, of course, won’t be around to help fund such an exploration initiative even if the White House suddenly changed its mind, since he announced earlier this week that he is not running for reelection in 2014. The CJS subcommittee’s vice chair, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), though, appears to share many of Wolf’s views. In an interview with the Houston Chronicle, Culberson agreed that the Moon should be the focus of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts, and, like Wolf, rejects any notion of US-China cooperation in space exploration. Of China’s lunar lander, Culberson said that it “was a strategic move on their part to attempt to lay claim to, and in the future exploit the mineral resources of the Moon,” noting the landing site is reportedly rich in rare earth elements.

The concern expressed by Reps. Wolf and Culberson, though, does not necessarily extend to the general public. Results of a poll released Thursday by Rasmussen Reports showed that 33% of Americans considered the Chinese lunar landing as “bad” for the US. However, 45% said the landing had no impact on the US. The poll also included questions on whether the US should resume human missions to the Moon in the next decade and whether there will be “a superpower race to win control of the Moon,” but the polling organization withheld those results for its subscribers.

Defense authorization bill preserves ORS Office, examines space security issues

Late last night the Senate passed the fiscal year 2014 defense authorization bill, after the House approved the final compromise version of the bill last week. The giant bill covers a wide range of Department of Defense (DOD) policy issues, including some related to space.

One major military space policy issue included in the bill deals with the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, a DOD office whose future has been uncertain in recent years as the Air Force sought to close it. The final bill keeps the ORS Office alive, setting side 50 percent of the funds for another program, a space-based infrared systems modernization testbed, “until the Executive Agent for Space of the Department of Defense certifies to the congressional defense committees that the Secretary of Defense is carrying out the Operationally Responsive Space Program Office.” The bill also requires the DOD to prepare a report no later than 60 days after its enactment to identify a “potential mission that would seek to leverage all policy objectives of the Operationally Responsive Space Program in a single mission.”

On a related topic, the bill requires the DOD to undertake a study on responsive, low-cost launch options, reviewing past and current efforts, a technology assessment for such systems, and the military utility of such systems. The report will also look at other “innovative methods” of achieving the goals of responsive launch, such as secondary payload opportunities on existing launch vehicles. That report is due in one year; the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will then perform a 60-day review of that report. This study comes at a time when DARPA is supporting two separate efforts to develop responsive low-cost launch systems, Airborne Launch Assist Space Access (ALASA) and the new, larger Experimental Spaceplane 1 (XS-1) program.

The bill also addresses larger launch vehicles. A section of the bill requires the Secretary of the Air Force to develop a plan for allowing new entrants into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, which the Air Force has already indicated a willingness to allow. The plan must include “a general description of how the Secretary will conduct competition with respect to awarding a contract to certified evolved expendable launch vehicle providers,” including cost, schedule, performance, and mission assurance attributes. The plans also must take into account the effect of other contracts potential contracts have, “including the evolved expendable launch vehicle launch capability contract, the space station commercial resupply services contracts, and other relevant contracts regarding national security space and strategic programs.”

Several other sections of the bill deal with Congress’s concerns about threats to US satellites. One section requires the head of US Strategic Command to provide notification to Congress within 48 hours of any “intentional attempt by a foreign actor to disrupt, degrade, or destroy a United States national security space capability,” with a more detailed report to follow 10 days after that attempt. Another section requires a study by the National Research Council on ways to deal with near- and long-term threats to national security space systems. And yet another section requires the Defense Department to prepare a report on its “space control mission,” including its existing and planned space situational awareness (SSA) sensors and SSA data sharing practices.

The commercial satellite communications industry also got something they have long sought in the bill. One section of the report directs the Defense Department to develop a strategy for multi-year procurement of commercial satellite services, including any changes in law required to make multi-year deals for such services. Currently the DOD procures commercial satellite communications bandwidth on short-term leases, typically at higher costs than if they leased capacity on a long-term basis. Many satellite operators had been pressing the DOD to make use of multi-year deals, arguing it saved the government money while lessening uncertainty for the operators, who don’t know how much capacity they should expect the DOD to buy from year to year. The bill would also look at greater use of government hosted payloads on commercial satellites.

Coburn includes several NASA programs in his annual “Wastebook”

Wastebook cover

The cover of this year’s Wastebook by Sen. Coburn features a NASA astronaut sleeping despite the commotion all around him, evidently worn out from spending all day studying Congress and/or in a food coma from eating too much 3D-printed pizza.

On Tuesday, Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) released his annual “Wastebook,” a document that identifies programs (typically small, obscure ones) that he concludes are “wasteful and low-priority” and thus could be cut. And as was the case with last year’s report, several NASA programs caught his attention.

Coburn’s report singled out NASA’s bed rest studies, where test subjects spend months in bed simulating some of the effects of long-duration weightlessness. Coburn is less critical of the science behind such studies as their current need. “No manned space missions to Mars—or anywhere else—are planned, scheduled or even possible in the foreseeable future, however, and NASA no longer has an active manned space program,” the report states. This will no doubt come to a surprise to many at NASA, including astronauts Rick Mastracchio and Mike Hopkins, who are currently in space on the ISS. The cost of this program: $360,000, according to the report.

The report also flags a $3-million program by NASA to conduct annual week-long seminars over the next several years for its employees to explain how Congress works. Coburn’s criticism is actually directed more at Congress itself and its lack of productivity than NASA itself. “NASA would be far better off looking for intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.”

The report brings up a program also mentioned last year: studies to develop food for future human Mars missions. This year’s report mentions a $125,000 grant to a small company to develop a “3-D pizza printer” that is on top of other NASA food study programs. “Every year, the average budget for Martian food development is $1 million.”

Elsewhere in the report, Coburn criticizes NASA spending $390,000 on an obscure “cartoon superhero” called the Green Ninja, who is supposed to teach students about the implications of climate change. “[W]ith the manned mission to the red planet shelved, the Green Ninja may be the only little green man the space agency makes contact with for the foreseeable future,” the report states, again claiming that NASA has no plans to send people to Mars. The report also complains that NASA spent $237,205 to study Christmas Island red crabs, arguing that such research should only be funded by the NSF, and $23,000 for a portrait of former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver.

However, after reading this report, no doubt many people will ask if these relatively small programs really are the most wasteful ones at the space agency.

Key NASA appropriator to retire

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) surprised many Tuesday when the 17-term congressman announced that he would not run for reelection in 2014. Wolf gave few details on his decision to retire now other than he planned to work on human rights and other issues after leaving Congress at the end of next year. “I plan to focus my future work on human rights and religious freedom – both domestic and international – as well as matters of the culture and the American family,” he said in his statement.

Wolf has played a key role in space policy in recent years as the chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, whose oversight includes NASA and NOAA. Besides his role in crafting spending bills, he has been a staunch opponent of NASA cooperation with China, in large part because of China’s human rights record. He has included provisions in recent appropriations bills forbidding NASA from bilateral cooperation with China, language that has caused no shortage of headaches at NASA Headquarters as Wolf kept watch to make sure NASA adhered to those restrictions.

Export control reform process is wrapping up

Nearly one year ago, the Congress approved a defense authorization bill that included a key provision for the US space industry: repealing language in the fiscal year 1999 defense authorization bill that put satellites and related components onto the US Munitions List, and thus under the control of the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). The administration, which had already embarked on broader export control reform efforts, could now include that section of the USML in its rolling review of the overall list, determining what should remain on the list and what could be moved to the less restrictive Commerce Control List (CCL).

That process is now in its final phases. In May, the State Department published a draft of a revised Category XV of the USML, which includes satellites and related components, beginning the process of public comment. That publication stated a 45-day public comment period that ended in July. Since then, an interagency group has been reviewing those comments, which run to nearly 400 pages and include feedback from companies, trade organizations, and members of the general public.

That review of the public comments, and resulting changes to the new USML Category XV rule and related changes to the CCL, have been completed. In a statement provided to a meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee’s (COMSTAC’s) International Space Policy Working Group in Washington on Tuesday, Dennis Krepp of the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security said that the review of the public comments was done. “The Commerce Department hopes to enter the formal process to get approval from the Office of Management and Budget within the next week or so,” Krepp’s statement, as read by working group chairperson Patricia Cooper, stated. (Krepp was scheduled to attend the meeting in person but was unable to do so when federal government offices in Washington closed for the day because of inclement weather.) After approved by the OMB, the final rules would then be reviewed by Congress; Krepp’s statement indicated the Commerce Department expected formal publication of the final rules in late March or April in 2014, taking effect 180 days later.

Krepp’s statement gave no indication of what changes had been made to the draft rule published in May, but noted that “you will some some changes were made between the proposed rule and the final rule based on the public comments.” One area that will be closely watched will be changes to the section of the draft Category XV rule that kept “man-rated sub-orbital, orbital, lunar, interplanetary or habitat” spacecraft on the USML. That would, for example, make it much more difficult for suborbital vehicle developers like Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace to operate out of the US, something that is a key part of both companies’ business plans.

During the public comment period, that provision of the proposed Category XV rule generated more feedback than any other section. Of the more than 100 separate submissions included in the public comment file published by the State Department, nearly half addressed that issue, with virtually all of those comments calling for such spacecraft to be taken off the USML. Those comments came from companies like Virgin and XCOR (as well as Lockheed Martin and Boeing) to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation to members of the general public with no obvious connections to relevant companies or organizations. While some submissions stretched for pages, others were remarkably brief: “Please move suborbital manned vehicles to the Commerce Control List,” read the entirety of one comment. By comparison, another popular issue in the public comments, the definition of a “defense service,” was discussed in about a third of the comments, but principally from law firms and corporate and university counsel.

“This is far from over, and I personally have some dire concerns relative to, for example, human-rating being used as a metric for export control,” Bigelow Aerospace’s Mike Gold, chairman of COMSTAC and a long-time advocate for export control, said at the full COMSTAC meeting on Wednesday. “I think you might as well use color of the spacecraft” to determine if something should fall under the USML.

Although the contents of the final rule won’t be public for at least three more months, there are unofficial hints that the wave of public comments on human-rated spacecraft will result in some changes. A participant at the Eilene M. Galloway Symposium on Critical Issues in Space Law in Washington earlier this month (held under the Chatham House Rule that restricts attribution) suggested that the discussion during the interagency review of the public comments did result in some changes, without being specific about what those changes were. “It probably isn’t going to satisfy everybody, but it’s a foot in the door” for more changes down the road, that conference participant said.

As Europa looks more inviting, one group presses NASA for a mission there

On Thursday, NASA announced a significant discovery about Europa, the large icy moon of Jupiter: astronomers spotted evidence for geysers of water erupting from the moon’s southern polar regions. The discovery may be further proof that the moon has a subsurface ocean of liquid water that could, potentially, harbor life. Moreover, it comes a day after another team of scientists reported the discovery of “clay-like” minerals on Europa’s surface, which could provide the organic building blocks needed for life.

The Planetary Society wasted no time in using the discoveries to lobby for funding for a Europa mission. “We have to explore Europa,” Bill Nye, CEO of the organization, said in a press release Thursday. “It will take a small adjustment to the Planetary Science budget to mount a mission that will have us solving problems that have never been solved before; there will be innovations and economic benefits.”

A Europa orbiter mission, or the “Europa Clipper” concept that would orbit Jupiter but make multiple close flybys of Jupiter, has been a high priority for planetary scientists, but something NASA has not committed to, citing limited budgets. For fiscal year 2013, Congress did set aside $75 million of NASA’s planetary budget for Europa mission studies, and in its FY2014 appropriations bill, the House earmarked an additional $80 million for Europa mission studies, but the total cost of such a mission is likely on the order of $2 billion.

The Planetary Society release does include a statement of support from the biggest Congressional supporter for a Europa mission. “This exciting revelation further solidifies the need for the Flagship Class mission to Europa that the scientific community has been clamoring for, the Planetary Science Decadal Survey has endorsed, and we in Congress have mandated by law,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). “I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that a Europa mission has the full support of the federal government.”

Senate passes amended launch indemnification bill, but time may have already run out

The good news for the commercial launch industry: late Thursday, the Senate passed a three-year extension of the third-party commercial launch indemnification regime, which is due to expire at the end of this year. The Senate passed the extension via unanimous consent, as reported here earlier this week. “The certainty of a three year extension will help the U.S. commercial space industry continue to grow and thrive, both here in Florida and around the country,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who sponsored the extension, in a statement yesterday evening.

The bad news, though, is that since the House passed only a one-year extension last week, the Senate’s three-year extension needs to go back to the House for passage there. And, late Thursday, the House adjourned after passing the budget deal announced earlier this week and the fiscal year 2014 defense authorization bill, with no plans to reconvene (except in pro forma sessions) until January 7. With launch indemnification slated to expire at the end of this month, this means either the Senate will have to go back and approve the one-year version the House passed, or wait until the House returns in January, thus creating a lapse in the indemnification regime.

(Update Friday 5:45 pm: a spokesperson for Sen. Nelson emailed Friday afternoon that the most likely course of action for the bill, since the House has adjourned until early January, will be to wait until they return and have them take up the bill. That means that there will be a gap in the launch indemnification regime, which could complicate any commercial launches, particularly by Orbital and SpaceX, planned for early 2014.)

House committee passes amended termination liability bill

After failing to come to an agreement on an amendment during a markup session last week, the House Science Committee took less than ten minutes Wednesday afternoon to approve an amended bill that would block NASA from reserving funds for termination liability for several key programs and also prevent the agency from unilaterally canceling those programs.

After brief statements, the committee approved on voice votes an amendment to HR 3625, then the bill itself. The bill originally prevented NASA from reserving funds for termination liability costs for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, and International Space Station (ISS), while preventing NASA from terminating prime contracts for those programs without the approval of Congress. The amendment includes the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to the programs covered by the bill, and makes a number of wording changes to clarify what a “prime contract” is, and to explicitly state that termination liability funds that have been reserved to date for the covered programs “shall be promptly used to make maximum progress in meeting the established goals and milestones of the covered program.”

Proponents of the bill—and there were no opponents of it who spoke during the markup—emphasized that the bill would free up money to be spent on making progress on those programs. “HR 3625 helps accelerate progress on these vital space programs by allowing these programs to spend dollars that have already been appropriated on actual work, rather than withholding these funds on the unlikely chance of program termination,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), the bill’s sponsor, said at the markup.

Earlier in the day, at a meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington, a staffer for another member of Congress expressed support for the bill. “Congress has appropriated, through a very difficult process in the House and Senate, a certain amount of money for a program. The agency should not withhold that money ‘just in case,’” said Mark Dawson, legislative director for Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “They should proceed with the work on the program.” He said the way termination liability had been applied by NASA was “a real problem” for the SLS program in particular, and that Rep. Aderholt supported the bill.

NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot, speaking a little later at the COMSTAC meeting, said that NASA’s decision to withhold funds for those programs for termination liability was based on legal and procurement guidance it received, but appeared to welcome the legislation. “We’ll see if we get relief on that,” he said.

Speaking a short time later, though, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver subtly criticized the bill’s provision prohibiting NASA from canceling the programs covered by the bill. “In my view, we should not be debating whether or not we should have the ability to terminate a program that is not working in a cost-plus environment,” she said. “That should not be debated. That’s something that we recognize is the way, when your government is funding a program, you have to protect against slips in development.”