Thursday’s release of the new National Space Transportation Policy didn’t contain much in the way of surprises or other major changes compared to the previous policy or ongoing activities by NASA and other federal agencies. As a result, the official reaction to the policy was generally pretty positive, if bland.
Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, said she saw parallels between the policy and a NASA authorization bill she introduced (but failed to get out of committee) in July. “Adopting these shared priorities provides NASA substantive policy direction,” she said in a statement late Thursday. (The policy, of course, goes beyond NASA to address national security and commercial space transportation policy issues as well.)
In the same statement, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee, emphasized safety issues regarding space transportation. “I also want to reiterate my strong commitment to the safety of any U.S. space transportation capability, and I look forward to working with the Administration in ensuring that safety remains the highest priority in the implementation of the National Space Transportation Policy.”
Two different industry groups praised the policy as well, but for different reasons. “A balanced approach between government and commercial efforts will help spur innovation and technology development in a more cost-effective manner than ever done before,” said George Torres, chair of the Coalition for Space Exploration. While the coalition emphasized a balance between the public and private sectors, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation emphasized the support for commercial space transportation in the policy. “We appreciate this clear delineation of policy in favor of supporting American industry, creating the most effective and efficient space program possible and ensuring the nation retains its leadership and competitiveness in space,” said CSF president Michael Lopez-Alegria.
Boeing, a member of both organizations, issued its own statement about the policy, more closely reflecting the Coalition’s emphasis on public-private balance than the CSF’s emphasis on commercial space transportation. “Boeing applauds the president’s balanced approach to developing affordable commercial crew and cargo transportation in areas of proven technology, while he simultaneously accepts the challenge for the United States – as the world’s leader in space exploration – to go far beyond Earth’s orbit,” said Boeing vice president John Elbon in a statement.
Today, 50 years after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, some are using the anniversary to make a call for a return of the robust space program so closely associated with him. “We should put the space program back at the center of American life. Let’s begin a national discussion to decide the next great mission for NASA,” wrote Brent Budowsky, a former congressional aide, in an op-ed in The Hill.
Budowsky’s essay follows familiar lines for those looking for guidance from the space program’s past: the leadership offered by Kennedy, the right stuff of those early astronauts (“Knights of the Round Table,” he calls them in an extension of the “Camelot” mythos), and the spinoffs created by space exploration, among other familiar tropes. He himself doesn’t know what that “next great mission” for NASA should be, other than presumably not NASA’s current plans to redirect an asteroid as a stepping stone to eventual human missions to Mars.
“I propose a national discussion seeking ideas for the next great mission of NASA from astronauts past and present, Nobel laureates, leaders in science and technology, educators, entrepreneurs, media commentators and, above all, young people,” he says, but is vague on how that “national discussion” would lead to anything like he admired about the early space program.
What he doesn’t mention, though, is that energy from the early Space Age was driven by a Cold War competition with existential stakes. And, even fifty years ago, there were doubts about the direction of the program: Kennedy was in discussions with the Soviets about potential cooperation versus competition weeks before his death, although as John Logsdon writes in his recent book about Kennedy’s space policy, a review he initiated, but not completed until after his assassination, advocated for continuing Apollo in some form.
“So it is quite possible, and even likely, that had Kennedy lived, what many view as one of his signature achievements, if not indeed the one — sending America to the moon — would not have happened,” argues Rand Simberg in an op-ed in USA Today. “Kennedy’s legacy in space is a NASA human-spaceflight program that has been rudderless for half a century, because its purpose was never articulated in terms that would justify the massive amounts of money expended on it.”
Kennedy’s influence on space policy, in that respect, continues to this day. But what could have happened to Apollo, and space policy in general, had Kennedy lived will remain a tragic what-if.
After many months of delays, the Obama Administration quietly released Thursday afternoon a new National Space Transportation Policy. This is an update to the former space transportation policy developed during the Bush Administration and completed in late 2004. Both documents outline policy in regards of civil, national security, and commercial launch activities in the United States.
Many of the central tenets of the new policy are the same or similar as the 2004 policy (which, in turn, retained those of previous national policies.) These include assured access to space; use of US vehicle to launch US government payloads, with certain exceptions; and support for commercial space transportation in the United States. There are updates to the new policy to reflect NASA’s direction to develop “a heavy-lift space transportation system” (the Space Launch System is not mentioned by name in the new document) as well as commercial crew transportation systems and “other related capabilities” like on-orbit refueling and advanced in-space transportation systems.
A few other differences between the two policies worth noting:
The new policy emphasizes allowing for new entrants for launching US government payloads. The 2004 policy stated that, for “the foreseeable future, the capabilities developed under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program shall be the foundation for access to space” for intermediate and larger government payloads. The new policy simply calls for “to the maximum extent practicable, the availability of at least two U.S. space transportation vehicle families” without mentioning EELV by name. Both policies allowed for the introduction of new vehicles “that demonstrate the ability to reliably launch” such payloads, but the new policy specifically mentions the use of “established interagency new entrant certification criteria” for such vehicles, and any changes to such criteria would have to be coordinated between the National Security Advisor and the Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
The 2004 policy played up the development of “operationally responsive” launch systems, part of the push at the time for the broader concept of operationally responsive space. “Before 2010, the United States shall demonstrate an initial capability for operationally responsive access to and use of space to support national security requirements,” the 2004 policy stated. The new policy deemphasizes this, directing the Secretary of Defense to work with other agencies on “launch concepts, techniques, and technologies needed for augmentation or rapid restoration of national security space capabilities” without a specific goal or deadline as in the old policy, and without using the term “operationally responsive space.”
The new policy clarifies the launch of US government hosted payloads on commercial spacecraft. Previously, there had been uncertainty if such hosted payloads required a waiver from the White House if the commercial satellite that payload was hosted on was being launched outside the United States. The new policy explicitly states that hosted payloads, as defined in the policy, are exempt from the waiver requirement and can be launched on a non-US vehicle without one.
The new policy, in its commercial space guidelines section, includes a provision not found in the older policy to “Cultivate increased technological innovation and entrepreneurship in the U.S. commercial space transportation sector through the use of incentives such as nontraditional acquisition arrangements, competition, and prizes.” This mostly endorses current activities (notably NASA’s Commercial Crew Program); there are no current plans for space transportation prizes, although the FAA did propose a “Low Cost Access to Space” prize in 2011 that was not funded.
When multimillionaire and one-time space tourist Dennis Tito announced Inspiration Mars early this year, it was billed as a non-profit venture, funded via philanthropy, to send two people on a 501-day Mars flyby mission that would launch in early January 2018. Tito said he planned to fund the mission primarily through donations; they were open to selling some data collected during the mission to NASA, but that was, at that time, the only kind of funding they were seeking from the space agency.
Less than nine months later, Tito and Inspiration Mars have changed course. In a report summary released yesterday, timed with testimony given by Tito before a hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, Inspiration Mars rolled out an alternative plan that relies on a public-private partnership with NASA that makes use of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and a modified Orion spacecraft, as well as commercial crew transportation systems. It would also rely primarily on NASA funding to make the mission possible. This proposal would, in effect, reshape national space policy, with a very short period for Congress and the White House to endorse this approach in order to meet its launch window.
“The way that we’re proposing this is that this is a NASA mission with a philanthropic partner contributing to the mission,” said Inspiration Mars Foundation program manager Taber MacCallum in a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon. “This has to be, first and foremost, a NASA mission.”
MacCallum said that the shift in focus was driven by two factors. One was that the commercial systems they studied to do the mission “really didn’t come in with the kind of margins that gave us a good feeling about the risk associated with that.” The other was their growing confidence that the SLS could do the job. “It’s a good thing the SLS is being developed,” he said. “We really came around to independently validating the need for SLS. I didn’t frankly start off as an SLS supporter in this, and I came around to being one.”
The report summary itself does not go into great details about costs, other than Inspiration Mars expects the need for several hundred million dollars in additional NASA funding, primarily to accelerate development of the Dual Use Upper Stage (DUUS) for the SLS. That upper stage, needed to send the Inspiration Mars “Vehicle Stack” from low Earth orbit onto a Mars flyby trajectory, is currently not slated by NASA to be ready until the early 2020s. In his Congressional testimony, Tito indicated that up to $700 million in additional NASA funding—about $100–200 million per year over several years—would be needed to develop the DUUS and other elements, with Inspiration Mars providing on the order of $300 million.
To maintain schedule to achieve their planned mission—the spacecraft would have to depart in a window that opens Christmas Eve 2017 and closes less than two weeks later—Tito said they would need to get a commitment of support from Congress and the White House in the immediate future. “We have just a couple of months to get some signals that would indicate serious interest developing,” Tito said in the media teleconference. He and MacCallum said they have bene in touch with Congress and White House officials; on the latter, “we have had good discussions so far,” MacCallum said. Tito said later that an unnamed member of Congress would introduce a bill “in the next week or two” about the mission, but declined to name that member or members, or the contents of the bill.
NASA, though, doesn’t seem to be on board in support of that mission at the moment. “The agency is willing to share technical and programmatic expertise with Inspiration Mars, but is unable to commit to sharing expenses with them,” NASA spokesman David Weaver said in a statement provided to media. “However, we remain open to further collaboration as their proposal and plans for a later mission develop.”
NASA could, of course, be directed to support that mission by Congress and the White House, but there was no clear enthusiasm for the concept among members of the House Science Committee at yesterday’s hearing, some of whom were wary of Tito’s request for federal dollars. “Are you suggesting that the mission couldn’t be undertaken without additional NASA funding?” asked Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee. “Right now, I don’t see a lot of evidence that money is available,” Tito responded.
Inspiration Mars is already developing a fallback plan if support from the federal government doesn’t materialize in time for their late-2017 mission plan. Tito and MacCallum discussed an alternative trajectory for a 2021 mission that, while 88 days longer than the original plan, would include flybys of both Mars and Venus. Tito in particular said he was convinced someone would attempt that mission, claiming that Russia was planning to revive the long-retired Energia heavy-lift rocket for just such a mission (he admitted that he had no evidence to support such a proposal but “it seems pretty obvious to me.”)
“Why not move this mission to the here and now and now wait until the 2030s?” he asked in his Congressional testimony. Waiting until 2021, he warned, means that “another country, almost surely China, will have seen our missed opportunity and taken the lead themselves. May I offer a frank word to the subcommittee: the United States will carry out a flyby mission or we will watch as others do it. If America is every going to do a flyby mission of Mars, we’re going to have to do it in 2018.”
With the current commercial launch indemnification regime, which protects companies from third-party damages that exceed a level those companies must insure against, set to expire at the end of this calendar year, the House and Senate made moves Wednesday to provide an extension. However, the two houses disagree on how long that extension should be.
Late Wednesday, the Republican and Democratic leadership of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee announced the introduction of HR 3547, legislation that would extend the launch indemnification regime for one year. The bill is sponsored by full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), along with space subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and ranking member Donna Edwards (D-MD). The bill offers a “clean” extension, with no other provisions; the text of the bill runs only a little more than one page.
The comments in the committee press release indicate that Republican leadership was interested in a longer extension, but that Democrats on the committee preferred a short-term extension in order to study whether the indemnification system was still needed. “While a longer extension would have been preferable, this bipartisan compromise bill will at least provide temporary stability to our commercial space industry by protecting companies against third party liability costs,” Smith said in the statement. Johnson, meanwhile, said that the looming expiration of indemnification “should not and must not detract us from the greater goal of examining this and other commercial space issues comprehensively.”
At a hearing on commercial space held by the space subcommittee, Edwards also called for a short-term extension in order to buy time for broader studies of commercial space issues. “I hope that, over this next year, we will take to the task of doing the kind of oversight hearings we need to give the commercial space industry the kind of certainty that we need with respect to indemnification, and we can only do that if we get the FAA in here and get experts in so that we can look at the future environment and climate with respect to commercial activity,” she said.
A key senator, though, has a different plan. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) was, as of late yesterday, planning to introduce a separate launch indemnification bill. It, too, would be a clean bill, but would instead offer a three-year extension through the end of 2016. According to a source familiar with the senator’s plans, Nelson planned to seek expedited consideration of the bill by the full Senate to get passage via unanimous consent as soon as Thursday.
The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) issued a report yesterday on strategies for reducing the federal budget deficit, identifying ways to reduce spending and increase revenue. Among the proposals for cutting spending was the eliminate NASA’s human spaceflight program: “This option would terminate NASA’s human space exploration and space operations programs, except for those necessary to meet space communications needs (such as communication with the Hubble Space Telescope),” the report states (p. 74). Science and aeronautics programs would not be cut by the proposal.
The CBO report’s primary reason for eliminating NASA’s human spaceflight programs is that “increased capabilities in electronics and information technology have generally reduced the need for humans to fly space missions” and that, by terminating human spaceflight, it avoids the risk to human life inherent with such missions. However, it added that ending current human spaceflight programs “would end the technical progress necessary to prepare for human missions to Mars” (but then, if you’re ending human spaceflight, you’re probably not thinking about sending humans to Mars.) It added that there are limitations to the capabilities of robotic missions and “there may be some scientific advantage to having humans at the International Space Station to conduct experiments in microgravity.” The CBO report does not mention any geopolitical significance, positive or negative, to terminating NASA’s human spaceflight efforts.
The savings the CBO estimates would result from ending NASA’s human spaceflight program are significant: $73 billion from 2015 through 2023. The CBO report doesn’t go into details on how it calculated those estimates, but the near-term numbers are similar to the budget projections for the Space Operations and Exploration accounts in the NASA budget. That $73 billion is the third-largest spending cut among discretionary programs, behind a 25% cut in international affairs programs ($114 billion in 2015–2023) and reducing defense spending to conform to the caps in the Budget Control Act ($495 billion in the same period.)
The CBO emphasized that it was not endorsing any of the proposals included in the report, but instead providing a set of options for policymakers. “As a collection, the options are intended to reflect a range of possibilities, not a ranking of priorities or an exhaustive list,” the office stated. “Inclusion or exclusion of any particular option does not imply endorsement or disapproval by CBO, and the report makes no recommendations.”
The House Science Committee’s space subcommittee is holding a hearing Wednesday simply titled “Commercial Space.” The subcommittee will first hear from House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), followed by a panel of witnesses: Satellite Industry Association (SIA) president Patricia Cooper, Mojave Air and Space Port CEO and general manager Stu Witt, and Dennis Tito, the businessman who flew to the ISS in 2001 as its first commercial visitor (aka space tourist) and, more recently, established the Inspiration Mars Foundation to attempt a human Mars flyby mission late this decade.
The committee hasn’t disclosed yet additional details about the content of or other details about the hearing. McCarthy, besides being one of the top Republicans in the House, has been an advocate of commercial spaceflight, supporting efforts like last year’s extension of the “learning period” that restricts the FAA’s ability to establish regulations for commercial human spaceflight. McCarthy also introduced legislation in August to “streamline” commercial spaceflight regulations. (Mojave Air and Space Port is in McCarthy’s district, no doubt helping to explain his interest.) Later panelists may bring up other pressing commercial space issues, such as the ongoing reform of export control regulations (a proposed final rule for the new Category XV of the US Munitions List, which covers satellites and related components, is due out by year’s end) and the need to extend the third party commercial launch indemnification regime, which expires at the end of the year.
As NASA celebrated the end of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program at a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, it also made another pitch for the program following in COTS’s footsteps, the Commercial Crew Program. But as NASA leadership were calling for full funding for commercial crew, a separate report by NASA’s Inspector General said it looked increasingly likely NASA would not be able to support more than one company in the next phase of the program.
“It’s now critically important to get full funding from Congress to keep us on track to begin these launches in 2017,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in opening remarks at the COTS press conference, referring to commercial crew. He said that NASA will release the request for proposals for the next phase of the program, called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), next week (November 19, according to a notice by NASA earlier this month.) “In many ways, the completion of COTS is simply a passing of the torch of innovation to our partners in the commercial crew program.”
NASA requested $821 million from Congress for commercial crew in its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal. However, House appropriators only offered $500 million for the program in its spending bill, while their Senate counterparts proposed $775 million. (There’s been no recent action on either bill as appropriators await the outcome of broader House-Senate budget negotiations.) In late July, shortly before announcing plans to leave NASA, then-deputy administrator Lori Garver said the Senate figure would be good enough, but pressed for full funding to stay on schedule and “keep competition as long as possible.”
“It’s obviously a very difficult budget environment for all discretionary programs,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, during Wednesday’s press conference. “We’ve said this many times: less money means we go slower than we’d like to go. It’s a pretty straightforward equation.”
An alternative would be for NASA to downselect to a single company in the CCtCap round, a move some in Congress have endorsed to keep the program on schedule with constrained funding. “Getting the systems as soon as possible and also having competition are both goals that NASA would like to maintain through this program,” McAlister said. “I can’t say one is more important than the other.” He added they would wait to see the contents of the CCtCap proposals, due in January. “Those proposals will really dictate how fast we go and how many we have.”
Shortly after the press conference ended, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on the commercial crew program, identifying funding as one of several key challenges it faces. The report noted that the program has received only 38 percent of its original budget requests in fiscal years 2011 through 2013, pushing back the beginning of service to 2017. “Generally speaking, we determined that each year’s budget decrement has resulted in an additional year of schedule delay,” the report concluded. “Even if the Program receives its full budget request in future years, the cumulative difference between the Program’s initial budget requests and receipts over the life of the Program would be approximately $1.1 billion.”
The report added that continued funding shortfalls could force NASA to downselect to a single company in the upcoming CCtCap contract. “While NASA officials said they would prefer to continue to work with at least two companies until the transportation services contract, a lack of funding will likely require them to ‘down select’ to a single partner during Phase 2 of Certification [aka CCtCap], which is currently scheduled to begin in mid-2014.” The reports adds that such a downselect, while saving money in the short term, may drive up costs in the long term based on experience with other major spaceflight programs.
The OIG report includes one additional item of interest about commercial crew funding, regarding the amount being provided by the industry partners. Specific amounts of investment by the commercial crew partners—Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX—have been hard to come by; specific information has been redacted from their Space Act Agreements, and company officials have spoken only vaguely of making significant internal investments. However, according to the OIG report, the commercial crew partners have contributed “under 20 percent” of the overall development costs for the ongoing Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) effort. By comparison, the report notes that the two COTS awardees, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, contributed “roughly 50 percent” of the total development costs of their systems.
Tuesday afternoon, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace held an event at a downtown Washington hotel to discuss the delivery to NASA of a Bigelow report on commercial lunar exploration architectures. That report, as I summarized yesterday at NewSpace Journal, calls for the use of a COTS-like model to allow NASA to partner with industry (including Bigelow) to develop capabilities to enable human spaceflight activities beyond Earth orbit, including in orbit around and on the surface of the Moon.
The report also emphasized the need for a lunar property rights regime. Companies “must known they will be able to (1) enjoy the fruits of their labor relative to activities conducted on the Moon or other celestial bodies, and (2) own the property that they have surveyed, developed, and are realistically able to utilize,” the report states. And, in a point emphasized in the report in bold, italic, and underlined type: “Without property rights, any plan to engage the private sector in long-term beyond LEO activities will ultimately fail.”
At yesterday afternoon’s event, Bigelow Aerospace founder and president Robert Bigelow indicated that the company plans to press their case for lunar property rights in the near future. “Bigelow Aerospace will be making an application to the FAA/AST [Office of Commercial Space Transportation] for a policy review pertaining to lunar property rights before the end of this year,” Bigelow said.
That policy review would take advantage of the FAA’s ability to perform a policy review of a license application, which involves interagency consultation. “I think it’s abundantly clear that, in terms of establishing lunar property rights or even making that request, that the FAA/AST is the proper gateway to begin that process,” said Mike Gold, Bigelow Aerospace’s chief counsel and head of the company’s Washington office, citing that interagency review process. “I know it sounds like a lot for one company or one request, but that is actually the way the process goes from a legal perspective.”
Bigelow Aerospace doesn’t have immediate plans for a lunar base, although it is a long-term goal for the company; it’s focused for now on developing orbital habitats and awaiting the developing of commercial crew transportation systems before launching those modules and lining up customers for them. So why press for it now? “We think that, first of all, this is not an overnight process, and that is probably the main reason why we are starting on this,” Robert Bigelow said. “We want to galvanize support where we can, and find out where the most significant support is derived from.”
“I have a more pessimistic view of the need for property rights,” he added. He cited an unnamed foreign country that has “significant ambition” in space and “significant financial resources”—a not-so-veiled reference to China. “It’s very possible that, in another dozen years, America could have quite a surprise.” Bigelow has previously stated his concerns that China could claim the Moon as its territory, although that view is not shared by those that closely follow Chinese space efforts.