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Wilson: AF Requesting 20 Percent Increase for Space, SpaceX to Launch Next X-37B

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 06-Jun-2017 (Updated: 07-Jun-2017 12:49 AM)

Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Heather Wilson told a Senate committee today that the service is requesting a 20 percent increase for its space programs in FY2018.  She also revealed that SpaceX will launch the next X-37B mission in August, the first time one of the uncrewed spaceplanes will launch on a vehicle other than a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V.   She and Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein further reinforced the Air Force paradigm that space no longer is a benign environment, but a warfighting domain.

Wilson was sworn in as SecAF on May 16 and testified to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) along with three other top Air Force officials (including Goldfein) the next day about military space programs.  

Today's annual Air Force posture hearing was much broader and encompassed all Air Force activities. The preponderance of the hearing focused on aircraft and personnel.  In her opening statement, however, Wilson chose space as one of her three main themes.  The others were readiness and modernization.  Regarding the space portion of the service's portfolio, she said the FY2018 budget request includes a 20 percent increase for space, but did not go into details.

During an exchange with Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) over whether U.S. space capabilities are sufficiently resilient and responsive, both praised the Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office and its rapid acquisition authorities.  ORS is headquartered at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico, which Heinrich represents in the Senate and Wilson represented in the House from 1998-2009.  As the discussion continued, Heinrich also urged Wilson to consider using small launch vehicles from companies like Virgin Galactic, Vulcan Aerospace and Orbital ATK to ensure more distributed, responsive and flexible access to space.

In her reply, Wilson held up a model of the X-37B spaceplane and said it "will be going up again, it's a reusable vehicle, and it will be going up again on top of a SpaceX launcher in August."  

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson shows model of X-37B spacecraft at Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, June 6, 2017.  Screengrab from committee webcast.

She added that Goldfein had a model of a cubesat with him and overall spacecraft are "getting smaller, able to be put on multiple different platforms, and there's some very exciting things happening in commercial space that bring the opportunity for assured access to space at a very competitive price."

The Air Force has two Boeing-built X-37B Orbital Test Vehicles (OTVs), each of which has been launched two times.  What they do in space is highly classified, but they remain on orbit for very long periods of time.  They look like miniature space shuttle orbiters.  The most recent flight ended last month after 718 days in space, landing at Kennedy Space Center for the first time.  KSC was the launch site for all of NASA's space shuttle missions and almost all of them landed there as well.  The Air Force is now using some of the former shuttle facilities for the X-37B, including the runway and a processing facility. The previous X-37B launches were on Atlas V rockets from Cape Canaveral, FL with landings at Vandenberg AFB, CA.

The fact that the Air Force chose SpaceX instead of ULA for the next X-37B launch does not appear to have been publicly disclosed until now.

Goldfein referred to the close cooperation between the Air Force and NASA in space, thanking Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for his work on the "NASA strategic plan," a probable reference to the NASA Transition Authorization Act recently signed into law.  Cruz chairs the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee that oversees NASA.

Cruz asked if the 20 percent increase in Air Force space funding, which he said would bring the total to $7.7 billion, is sufficient. 

Wilson said that some of the items on the Air Force's "unfunded requirements list" that was sent to Congress are space-related, including $200 million for "space defense".   She concluded that "I think there's a lot of progress [with the requested increase] but there's no question there's much more to be done."

Goldfein ended the hearing by reiterating the Air Force's view that space is no longer a benign environment, but a "domain from which we have to be prepared to fight and win and ... maintain space superiority, if war extends into space or starts in space.  ... I align with General John Hyten [Commander of STRATCOM] who has said there's no such thing as war in space, there's just war.  But if it extends into space, we've got to be ready."

Memorial Fund Established for Matt Isakowitz

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jun-2017 (Updated: 04-Jun-2017 05:20 PM)

The Future Space Leaders Foundation has established a fund in honor of Matthew Isakowitz, who died last week at the age of 29.  The organization is still filling in the details, but plans to use donations to further his "legacy in the field of human space exploration."

Though still in the early years of his career, Matt was already a well known member of the space policy community -- a champion especially for commercial space.  More than 100 tributes posted on a guest book at illustrate the respect and affection held for him by his friends and colleagues. 

Many of the more veteran members of the space policy community first came to know Matt as the son of Steve Isakowitz, who held a number of positions in the government and private sector (including NASA Comptroller when Sean O'Keefe was Administrator and President of Virgin Galactic) before becoming President and CEO of the Aerospace Corporation last year. Steve is himself a highly admired member of the community, but Matt made his own place in the profession.

Matt Isakowitz (center).   Photo provided by Clay Mowry (used with permission)

A Phi Beta Kappa graduate in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Princeton, with a master's degree in international science and technology policy from George Washington University, Matt worked at Astranis, Planetary Resources, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Space Adventures, SpaceX, and the XPRIZE Foundation.

The Future Space Leaders Foundation is a 501 (c)(3) tax exempt organization "dedicated to the career development of young space and satellite industry professionals."  A link to donate to the fund is on its website.

What's Happening in Space Policy June 4-10, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Jun-2017 (Updated: 06-Jun-2017 03:28 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of June 4-10, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate will be in session this week.

During the Week

Better late than never?  The Trump Administration finally sent its FY2018 budget proposal to Congress on May 23.  As they say, the President proposes and Congress disposes.  This week Congress gets about its job in earnest with many, many hearings on various aspects of the budget request.  It is just a request. Only Congress decides how to spend the nation's money.   The reaction to the request in the halls of Congress is much like what was heard during the Obama Administration -- dead on arrival.  Still, they had to wait until the request was in hand to get busy coming up with their own plan.  Describing how difficult that's going to be would make this missive far too long, especially since the budget debate may well get entangled in the debate over increasing the debt limit.  Even though Republicans control the House, Senate, and White House, there are many intraparty divisions, never mind trying to reach a deal that at least some Democrats can support.

For this week, the focus is on information gathering for both appropriations and authorizations (not sure of the difference -- see our What's a Markup? Fact Sheet).   From a space policy perspective, the hearings to watch are NASA budget (two on Thursday -- the House SS&T space subcommittee in the morning; House Appropriations CJS subcommittee in the afternoon), FAA reauthorization, including FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (Wednesday, Senate Commerce Committee; Thursday, House T&I Committee), Air Force posture hearing (Tuesday, Senate Armed Services); and Department of Commerce budget, which includes NOAA (Thursday, Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee).

The House SS&T Committee also has scheduled a markup of the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act of 2017 on Thursday at 1:30 pm ET.  A draft bill has been circulating for several weeks. Although it has not been formally introduced yet, the committee posted the current draft text that the committee will consider that day.

Off the Hill this week, the annual GEOINT conference begins today in San Antonio and runs through Wednesday.  The theme this year is Advancing Capabilities to Meet Emerging Threats.

The American Bar Association is holding its annual space law symposium in Washington, DC (note the location changed and is now at the University Club) on Thursday.   It's got a GREAT line up of speakers.  Most unfortunately, it turns out to be competing with four hearings and one markup.  Not to mention a Space Transportation Association luncheon with Bob Cabana, former astronaut and Director of Kennedy Space Center.

Speaking of astronauts, amidst all this NASA will announce the members of its new astronaut class at Johnson Space Center on Wednesday.  Vice President Mike Pence will be in attendance.  He said in March during the signing ceremony for the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act that President Trump will reestablish the National Space Council and he (Pence) will lead it.  Everyone has been waiting for further news since then - perhaps he'll have more to say on Wednesday.

Lots of other really interesting things going on in D.C. and the rest of the world as well including Beijing (GLEX 2017); Vienna, Austria (UNCOPUOS); and Kerkrade, The Netherlands (Overview Symposium).

The list of everything we know about as of Sunday morning is shown below.  Check back throughout the week to see others that we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday, June 4 (continued from June 3)

Sunday-Wednesday, June 4-7

Monday, June 5

Tuesday, June 6

Tuesday-Thursday, June 6-8

Wednesday, June 7

Wednesday, June 7 - Friday, June 16

Thursday, June 8

Friday, June 9

  • The Space Mission Force (AFA Mitchell Institute), Capitol Hill Club, 300 1st St., SE, Washington, DC, 8:00 am ET  pre-registration REQUIRED

Friday-Saturday, June 9-10

NASA, SpaceX Ready for Launch of First Second-Hand Dragon - UPDATE 2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-May-2017 (Updated: 03-Jun-2017 05:21 PM)

NASA and SpaceX are getting ready for tomorrow's (June 1) launch of the SpaceX-11 (SpX-11) cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  The Dragon spacecraft will be packed full of supplies and equipment for the ISS crew as usual, but what makes this mission unique is that this Dragon has been to ISS before.  Originally launched in 2014, SpaceX had to change out some of the components, but most of it took this ride on SpaceX-4. [UPDATE: The launch was successful on June 3, 2017, a 2-day delay after weather scrubbed the June 1 attempt.  Dragon's arrival at the ISS is scheduled for June 5.  First stage landing at Landing Zone 1 on Cape Canaveral Air Force Station also was successful.]

During a press conference today, ISS program manager Kirk Shireman was asked if NASA got a discount for agreeing to use a second-hand spacecraft.   Shireman explained that NASA has a fixed price contract with SpaceX for these launches so it does not quite work like that.  Over the course of time, both sides need to make changes resulting in what he called "equitable adjustments" for each.  He could not cite precisely what adjustment NASA may have received in this case.

NASA ISS Program Manager Kirk Shireman.  Photo credit:  NASA

Hans Koenigsmann, SpaceX's Vice President for Mission Assurance, said the spacecraft's hull and basic structure are unchanged, but some components -- including the thrusters, batteries, some avionics, and heat shield -- were replaced and the entire vehicle recertified.

Launch is scheduled for 5:55:51 ET from Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at Kennedy Space Center. The weather forecast is 70 percent favorable, with a risk of afternoon thunderstorms.  The first stage will land 7 minutes and 27 seconds later at SpaceX's Landing Zone 1 on the adjacent Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS). 

It is the fifth attempt to land on land; the other four were successful (Dec. 31, 2015; July 18, 2016; Feb. 18, 2017: and May 1, 2017).   SpaceX has successfully landed another six first stages on drone ships out at sea.  The launch vehicle's trajectory determines whether the first stage is recovered on land or a drone ship.  The first flight of a reused first stage took place earlier this year.

Reusability is SpaceX's watchword.  SpaceX founder, CEO and Lead Designer Elon Musk is convinced it is the key to lowering launch costs and enabling bold goals such as the settlement of Mars.

NASA's space shuttle was the first reusable space transportation system.  It never achieved the cost reductions promised at the beginning of the program because of the high costs of refurbishing the solid rocket boosters and shuttle orbiters after each flight (the large cylindrical External Tank was not reused).  Consequently there are many skeptics about the true cost reductions that can result from reusability, but that has not deterred Musk. 

Asked today about the cost savings for reused Falcon 9s, Koenigsmann demurred, saying one must think about it in the long term.  First the company must recoup the money it spent on developing and testing Falcon 9 and its predecessor, Falcon 1, noting that three of the four Falcon 1 flights and two Falcon 9s failed.  "Maybe the 10th flight, maybe the 20th flight, that's when you finally could see some money saved."

SpaceX does offer a price discount to its commercial customers for buying launches on previously flown Falcon 9s.  SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said the discount is 10 percent.

NASA selected SpaceX not only for its commercial cargo program to resupply the ISS with equipment, experiments and other necessities, but for its commercial crew program to ferry astronauts back and forth.   Koenigsmann said today that SpaceX is still targeting the first demonstration launch (Demo 1) of its Crew Dragon for the end of this year and the second, Demo 2, for the first quarter of 2018.  Demo 1 will be unoccupied.  Demo 2 will carry two crew members.  Assuming all goes well, operational flights would begin thereafter.

SpaceX leases LC-39A at Kennedy Space Center from NASA.  It has another launch site at CCAFS next door, Space Launch Complex-40 (SLC-40), which was badly damaged when a Falcon 9 exploded on September 1, 2016 during fueling for a pre-launch test.   Work continues on repairing the launch pad and Koenigsmann said launches will resume in late summer or early fall.  The company will use both LC-39A and SLC-40 as it tries to accelerate its launch rate and work off the backlog caused by the explosion and resulting investigation.

SpX-11 is delivering 4,500 pounds of research supplies and investigations according to Camille Alleyene, Associate Program Scientist for the ISS at NASA's Johnson Space Center.  Among the cargo are mice and fruitflies.  The rodent experiments are investigating how to reduce bone loss and grow new bone.  The fruitfly research is related to cardiovascular changes.

Dragon's unpressurized trunk will be filled with three payloads:  the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) for astrophysics research; the Multiple User System for Earth Sensing (MUSES), a platform onto which up to four Earth-sensing instruments can be placed; and the Roll Out Solar Array (ROSA), to test a new type of solar array.  NICER and MUSES will be installed onto the ISS.  ROSA will be rolled out from its storage location in Dragon's trunk and tested for 7 days.  It then will be retracted into its housing in the trunk.  The trunk is detached from Dragon as it reenters the atmosphere and destroyed by the heat of reentry while the main capsule continues to Earth and splashes down in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California.

In total, Dragon is delivering approximately 6,000 pounds of experiments, equipment and supplies to the ISS. It is due to arrive at the ISS on Sunday, June 4, and remain there for about a month.

If the launch does not take place for any reason tomorrow, the next opportunity is Saturday, June 3, at 5:07 pm ET. The weather forecast for that day is 60 percent "go."

Congress Looking at Additional Measures to Facilitate Commercial Space

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-May-2017 (Updated: 31-May-2017 08:06 AM)

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation space subcommittee has held two hearings seeking input on what more the commercial space industry needs legislatively to further its aspirations in exploiting space. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) became law in 2015 and industry has a list additional provisions they believe could help, and apparent consensus on one that would not – changing the 50-year old Outer Space Treaty (OST).

The titles of both hearings began “Reopening the American Frontier” – evoking the country’s westward expansion in the 1800s. The April 26 hearing focused on reducing regulatory barriers while the May 23 hearing looked specifically at how the OST helps or hurts American companies.

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee held its own hearing on reducing regulatory barriers, which also included debate about the OST, in March. Right now, three key members of the House SS&T committee involved in space policy are circulating draft legislation that would assign most responsibility for regulating commercial space activities to the Department of Commerce (DOC). DOC currently regulates commercial remote sensing satellites – a topic on which House SS&T held a hearing last fall.

The bottom line of all the congressional activity is that there is strong support for U.S. companies that want to engage in commercial space endeavors, especially innovative “New Space” ventures like emplacing habitats in space or on the lunar surface, satellite servicing, and asteroid mining. A consensus seems to exist that the federal government should impose only a light hand of regulation – just enough to satisfy potential investors worried about the regulatory environment such ventures face and to ensure the U.S. fulfills its obligations under the OST. An often used phrase is “maximum certainty with minimal regulation.”

What is lacking is agreement on what the U.S. government is or is not required to do to fulfill its treaty obligations or what government agency should be in charge of whatever regulations are put in place.

The legal debate over what is required by the OST is intricate. Basically there are two schools of thought. One professes that because the treaty is not “self executing,” its provisions apply to the private sector only if Congress takes action to make it so. Otherwise the private sector is free to do whatever it wishes – “permissionless” regulation. The other asserts that treaties must be implemented based on their “plain meaning.” Article VI of the OST states that “[T]he activities of non-governmental entities in outer space … shall require authorization and continuing supervision” by the government that signed the treaty. The plain meaning of that, they argue, is that governments must give permission for a commercial (“non-governmental”) activity to take place and continually supervise it.

While there was no agreement on that score at any of the hearings, the Senate hearing in May focused on a somewhat different question – has the 50-year-old OST been so overtaken by events that the United States should withdraw from or seek to renegotiate it. None of the witnesses supported either of those courses of action preferring to focus on what Congress could and should do to resolve the issues domestically.

The following companies were represented at the April 26 Senate hearing: Bigelow Aerospace (Robert Bigelow), Blue Origin (Rob Meyerson), Made in Space (Andrew Rush), and Galactic Ventures (George Whitesides). Galactic Ventures includes Virgin Orbit, Virgin Galactic, and The Spaceship Company. Companies at the May 23 hearing were: Space Systems Loral (Mike Gold), Planetary Resources (Peter Marquez), and Moon Express (Bob Richards). Also testifying on May 23 were Pamela Melroy, recently retired from DARPA where she led the satellite servicing technology development program, and three space law experts (James Dunstan, Mobius Legal Group; Laura Montgomery, Ground Based Space Matters; and Matthew Schaefer, University of Nebraska College of Law).

Among the measures advocated by one or more of the witnesses at those hearings were the following:

  • Make permanent the FAA’s authority to indemnify commercial space launch companies against certain third party claims, which expires in 2025 (Galactic Ventures);
  • Maintain the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight through 2023 during which time the government may not impose further regulations (Galactic Ventures);
  • Implement a consistent national legal environment of informed consent requirements for commercial human spaceflight to avoid potentially conflicting state laws and legal interpretations (Galactic Ventures);
  • Streamline the regulation of hybrid launch systems that involve both aircraft and spacecraft (Galactic Ventures);
  • Streamline the licensing of, or implement new regulatory guidelines for, space support vehicles for hire like Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo aircraft (Galactic Ventures);
  • Streamline the process within the FAA – between the Air Traffic Organization (ATO) and the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) – for integrating space traffic into the National Airspace System  (Galactic Ventures);
  • Provide sufficient funding to AST so it can do its work efficiently and effectively (Galactic Ventures);
  • Review and revise government acquisition processes for commercial services to emphasize rapid procurement of innovative capabilities (Galactic Ventures);
  • Refrain from allowing government-funded programs to compete directly with commercially available or emerging services (Galactic Ventures);
  • Maintain the policy of prohibiting commercial use of excess ballistic missiles (Galactic Ventures);
  • Fill vacancies on the Export-Import Bank’s Board of Directors so it can restore normal operations (Galactic Ventures);
  • Continue to review and update the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and modernize the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to avoide stifling American innovation or business (Galactic Ventures);
  • Make decisions about how to transition from the International Space Station to commercial space stations (Bigelow Aerospace);
  • Align Air Force and FAA requirements for obtaining approval for reusable launches and landings instead of the current duplicative system (Blue Origin);
  • Designate the FAA as the single point of contact with sole authority to regulate commercial launches and reentries regardless of location or type of launch (Blue Origin);
  • Affirm that intellectual property developed in space by companies, whether in a commercial or government facility, will be held by the company that creates it (Made in Space);
  • Clarify how the U.S. government interprets and fulfills its obligations under the Outer Space Treaty, but do not withdraw from it or try to open it for renegotiation (consensus of the witnesses at the May hearing);
  • Establish a predictable, transparent, efficient process that provides certainty for investors and companies seeking to engage in commercial space activities (Moon Express, Space Systems Loral); and
  • Modify the current regulatory system at AST rather than setting up new bureaucracies and processes at another agency (Space Systems Loral).

Subcommittee chairman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) ended the May hearing by saying it is the committee’s intention to move forward with legislation to create a system that incentivizes investment and maximizes the potential of space.

As noted, three House members are circulating their own draft legislation that would assign most regulatory responsibility for commercial space regulations to the Department of Commerce, although it envisions very little regulation at all. The bill has not been introduced yet, but could be at any time.

Strictly speaking, legislation is supposed to follow a process where a bill is introduced and referred to one or more committees that hold hearings followed by markups. The bill is then reported from committee, usually with a written text that explains the committee’s intent. Then the bill is debated on the floor of the House or Senate and passed (or not). In the past several years, however, it has become commonplace for bills to be introduced and go directly to the floor, with any negotiations taking place behind closed doors. Time will tell which path any new commercial space legislation will take.

What's Happening in Space Policy May 29-June 3, 2017

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 28-May-2017 (Updated: 28-May-2017 05:02 PM)

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of May 29-June 3, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in recess this week.

During the Week

The United States observes Memorial Day tomorrow (Monday, May 29), where we honor the men and women who have died in the service of our country.  Federal offices and many businesses will be closed.  The House and Senate are taking the week off from legislative duties to reconnect with voters back home.

There's still plenty going on this week, though.

Two space conferences are scheduled in the U.K.-- the Interplanetary CubeSat Workshop (iCubeSat) in Cambridge May 30-31 and the U.K. Space Conference in Manchester May 30 - June 1.  The biennial U.K. Space Conference is still on as far as we know despite the horrific tragedy in that city last week (at a different venue).  It has an impressive set of speakers primarily from the U.K. and Europe, including ESA Director General Jan Woerner and ESA/UK astronaut Tim Peake.

Back here in the States, on Wednesday, NASA will hold a media event to make "an announcement" about a spacecraft it plans to launch next year that will be the first to "touch" the Sun.  Solar Probe Plus (SPP) will go into orbit around the Sun at a distance of 4 million kilometers from its surface, within its outer atmosphere.  Wednesday's briefing is from the University of Chicago, home to the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics and to renowned space physicist, Dr. Eugene Parker.  NASA's press release didn't say what the announcement is about, but Kavli's website refers to it as a ceremony honoring Parker, one of the participants in the event.  It will be broadcast on NASA TV. The new head of NASA's Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, is a solar physicist himself so it would not be surprising to see NASA  give more visibility to this part of its science portfolio, which is often overshadowed by earth science, astrophysics and planetary science.

Things will be busy on the highway between space and low Earth orbit, too.  On Thursday, Space X will launch its next cargo mission, CRS-11, to the International Space Station (ISS) from Kennedy Space Center's Launch Complex 39A (with pre-launch briefings the day before).  If launch takes place on time, it will arrive at the ISS on Sunday, June 4.  In between, on June 2, two ISS crew members will return home -- ESA's Thomas Pesquet and Roscosmos's Oleg Novitsky -- on their Soyuz MS-03 spacecraft.  Landing in Kazakhstan is at 10:09 am ET.  Originally Peggy Whitson was supposed to return on this flight, too, but she got an extra three months added to her mission because Russia has decided to keep only two, instead of three, cosmonauts aboard ISS until its science module is launched (a date that keeps slipping).  For this crew rotation, there was an empty seat as crew assignments got reallocated and she can return on Soyuz MS-04 instead in September. 

NASA's ISS Advisory Committee will meet in public session at NASA HQ in Washington from 2:00-3:00 pm ET on June 1.  Anyone can listen in, but you must contact Patrick Finley ( by 4:00 pm ET May 30 to get the dial-in info.

On the national security space front, Women in Aerospace (WIA) will hold an afternoon symposium on June 1 on "Entrepreneurship:  Revolutionizing National Security Operations" in Arlington, VA.  It features a keynote by Will Roper, Director of the Strategic Capabilities Office in the Office of Secretary of Defense (OSD) and a panel with representatives from OSD, In-Q-Tel, CIA, NGA, and the Institute for Defense Analyses.

If that's not enough, a very interesting symposium will take place next weekend, June 3-4, at Columbia University in New York City.  The "Dawn of Private Space Science" conference bills itself as "a new platform to facilitate communication between the private space industry and scientists."  Its mission is to open a conversation "to create new opportunities for scientific experimentation in partnership with the private sector."  The event will be livestreamed.  Some of the sessions sound quite intriguing.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Events of Interest list.

Sunday-Monday, May 28-29

Monday, May 29

  • Memorial Day, U.S. government and many businesses will be closed

Tuesday-Wednesday, May 30-31

Tuesday-Thursday, May 30 - June 1

Wednesday, May 31

Wednesday-Friday, May 31-June 2

Thursday, June 1

Friday, June 2

Saturday-Sunday, June 3-4

A Whole New Way of Looking at Jupiter

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 25-May-2017 (Updated: 26-May-2017 12:11 AM)

NASA released photographs of Jupiter today taken by its Juno spacecraft that show the planet in an entirely new light.  Juno is the first spacecraft to fly around the planet's polar axis and the view from there could not be more different than the familiar image of Jupiter with its red spot that fills textbooks everywhere.

Yes, this is Jupiter.

Jupiter's south pole as seen from NASA's Juno spacecraft at an altitude of 32,000 miles (52,000 kilometers).  Credits:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/SWRI/MSSS/Betsy Asher Hall/Gervasio Robles

The image was taken by the Junocam camera.  Juno was launched in 2011 and arrived at Jupiter on July 4, 2016.  A problem with its engine is preventing mission managers from moving Juno from its initial 53-day highly elliptical orbit into a planned closer 14-day orbit, but it is obtaining amazing data and images nonetheless.

During a media teleconference today, Juno mission scientists from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Planetary Science Institute, and NASA Headquarters described the startling data collected so far.  

"Every 53 days, we go screaming by Jupiter, get doused by a fire hose of Jovian science, and there is always something new," said principal investigator Scott Bolton from SwRI in San Antonio, TX.  "We knew, going in, that Jupiter would throw us some curves" but now "we are finding Jupiter can throw the heat, as well as knuckleballs and sliders."

The images of the poles show they are covered in "Earth-sized swirling storms that are densely clustered and rubbing together," but that is all that is known so far.  Bolton said the two poles do not look like each other, either.

The spacecraft has made five science passes to date and is revealing much about the gaseous planet, the largest in the solar system.  Although other spacecraft have flown by or orbited Jupiter, Juno is the first in an orbit that allows studies of its polar regions.

Artist's concept of Juno, with its three solar panels, orbiting Jupiter's poles.  Credit:  NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Other Juno data are surprising scientists about the planet's magnetic field and thermal radiation.  More images from today's teleconference and a link to press release are posted on NASA's website.


No Good News for FAA Space Office in FY2018 Request

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2017 (Updated: 25-May-2017 02:41 AM)

After successfully fighting to get a budget boost in FY2017, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is back to the drawing board in the Trump Administration's FY2018 request.  The office won a $2 million increase to $19.8 million in FY2017, but the FY2018 request is back down to $17.9 billion. The FAA's budget request also includes funding for a space traffic management pilot project.

Advocates for AST have insisted for years that more resources -- money and people -- are needed for the office to keep pace with the growth in the commercial space launch sector.  AST regulates, facilitates and promotes that industry.

Mike Gold chairs AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), whose members are representatives of commercial space companies.  Gold told in an interview today that one issue on which all of COMSTAC's members agree is that AST needs more funding.  He noted that it is rare when companies actually ask that more money be allocated to their government regulators, but inadequate resources could "lead to needless delays, create regulatory bottlenecks and stifle innovation."

Mike Gold, Chairman, COMSTAC. Photo credit:  FAA website.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is another strong supporter of AST, which is part of the Department of Transportation and funded in the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill.  He testified before the T-HUD subcommittee on March 9 advocating for a $23 million budget for AST in FY2018.  His argument is that space transportation is part of the nation's infrastructure, launching satellites like GPS that are essential to everyday life, and AST needs adequate resources to execute its duties.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry group of more than 70 companies and organizations, also is urging Congress to fund the office at $23 million. In a March 29, 2017 letter to the chair and ranking member of the Senate T-HUD appropriations subcommittee, the CSF especially cited the need for AST to update outdated regulations.  "It is essential that AST not simply apply additional funds to existing licensing approaches, but in fact actually reengineer those approaches to reduce unnecessary burdens to AST as well as industry."  The funding increase should be used "to fix AST's obsolete regulations, and not simply grow its status quo workforce, nor pursue newer missions with a lower priority than the core licensing function."

The letter and Bridenstine's testimony were prepared before the Trump Administration's budget request for AST was publicly known.  The $23 million would be a $3.2 million increase from the FY2017 level, substantial in and of itself.  Now that the request is only for $17.9 million, winning congressional support to raise it to $23 million will be no mean feat.  Getting it back to its FY2017 level of $19.8 million might be more achievable.  Bridenstine and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) led the fight last year to get the $19.8 million. Kilmer is a member of the House Appropriations Committee; his Seattle-area district is home to companies like Blue Origin and Planetary Resources.  One factor is whether Bridenstine will remain a member of the House and in a position to fight for AST.  He is a candidate to become NASA Administrator.

AST also receives a small amount of money from the Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) portion of the FAA budget for commercial space transportation safety.  The FY2018 request is $1.796 million, a slight reduction from FY2017.  That money funds its Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation and other R&D activities related to the safe and efficient integration of commercial space transportation into the National Airspace System (NAS).

Integrating commercial space transportation into the NAS is also funded in another part of the FAA's budget -- Facilities & Equipment (F&E) for the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), a different part of the FAA responsible for air traffic control. 

The FAA must clear the airspace around space launches and reentries and is requesting an increase in the F&E FY2018 budget from $2 million to $4.5 million to acquire a Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool that will enable the FAA to safely reduce the amount of airspace that must be closed, respond to unusual scenarios, and release airspace as a mission progresses.

According to the FAA's budget documentation, some of that money also will be used to initiate a pilot program "related to Space Traffic Management" (STM) that will enable FAA to "move toward the goal of monitoring space traffic and reducing the risk of space traffic incidents" and "enable the FAA to monitor space traffic services and their impact to aviation, consistent with the FAA's public safety mission."  The budget document describes the pilot program as funding acquisition of a high performance computing system composed of commercial and governmentally-developed analytical software.  "An initial space situational awareness system comprised of 4 analytical stations with the capability to store and utilize a dynamic orbital object database of roughly 500,000 individual objects will be developed."

STM is an extension of space situational awareness (SSA) -- knowing where space objects are and where they are going in order to avoid collisions.  The Air Force's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) is currently responsible for SSA and computing "conjunction analyses" to warn of potential collisions.  It notifies not only U.S. military users, but commercial and foreign entities (CFEs) as well. 

The Air Force wants the FAA to take over SSA responsibilities for CFEs so JSPoC can focus on military requirements.  Bridenstine and AST Associate Administrator George Nield have been advocating for AST to take on the non-military SSA role for more than a year.  STM implies that an agency has the authority to require a satellite owner to take action to avoid a collision instead of only advising the owner that a collision is possible.  No agency has that authority today, but they view AST as moving into that role over time. 

The pilot program appears to be part of ATO's budget request, however, not AST's.  ATO seems interested in getting involved.  An ATO representative gave a presentation to a Space Traffic Management conference in November 2016 explaining its Commercial Space Integration Team (CSIT) and laying out an "ATO Commercial Space Roadmap."  The budget request does not clarify the respective roles of AST and ATO in this regard.

NOAA's Polar Follow On Bears Brunt of Weather Satellite Cutbacks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-May-2017 (Updated: 24-May-2017 12:08 AM)

NOAA's FY2018 budget request shows a sharp decline in spending for its satellite programs.  Some of that is due to planned reductions as development programs ramp down, but the Polar Follow On program would suffer a significant cut and plans for new space weather satellites would not materialize. 

NOAA operates the nation's civil geostationary and polar-orbiting weather satellites.  For years, it has been developing a new generation of Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES) through the GOES-R program, a set of four satellites (GOES-R, -S, -T and -U).   GOES-R itself was launched last year and redesignated GOES-16, but the series is still referred to as GOES-R.  The budget for that program declines steeply from $753 million appropriated in FY2017 to $519 million requested for FY2018, but it is a planned reduction that was projected in last year's budget.

NOAA is also building a new generation of polar-orbiting weather satellites - the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).  That program is also ramping down as launch of JPSS-1 nears.  It is scheduled for September 2017.  The FY2018 request for JPSS is $776 million, compared to $787 million appropriated for FY2017. 

The JPSS program funds only the first two satellites in the series, however.  The next two spacecraft, JPSS-3 and -4, are called the Polar Follow On (PFO) program. The FY2018 request is for only $180 million, a sharp drop from the $329 million it received for FY2017 and the $586 million that was projected for this program last year.  Projections for the next four years now are shown only as "TBD."

NOAA's budget documentation says the agency will "initiate a re-plan" for PFO and "work to improve its constellation strategy considering all the polar satellite assets to ensure polar weather satellite continuity while seeking cost efficiencies, managing and balancing systems technical risks and leveraging partnerships."

NOAA also is responsible for providing operational space weather data on solar activity that can affect space and ground systems.  It operates the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) and began planning for new satellites to replace it.  The FY2017 budget request called for initiating a new Space Weather Follow-on program of two satellites, the first of which would be launched before DSCOVR exceeds its design lifetime.  The budget request was $2.5 million and Congress doubled that to $5 million.  The projection was for the Space Weather Follow-on to get $53.7 million in FY2018 and ramp up thereafter.  Instead, the FY2018 request is only $500,000.  The Senate just passed the bipartisan Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act (S. 141) to improve space weather forecasting, although it focuses on agency roles and responsibilities, not funding.

The budget request supports NOAA's commercial weather data pilot program, though only at $3 million compared to the $5 million appropriated for FY2017.  It also supports ground systems for radio occultation data (COSMIC-2), but not new satellites.

NASA Holding Its Own, But FY2018 Request Portrays Murky Future

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-May-2017 (Updated: 23-May-2017 11:19 PM)

President Trump's complete FY2018 budget request was sent to Congress today.  It confirms that NASA's budget for the next five years is projected to be flat at $19.062 billion, with no adjustment for inflation. That will complicate efforts to move forward on efforts to send people to Mars.  The request also would terminate a fifth earth science mission -- Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI).  Although NASA fared well compared to many non-defense agencies, it certainly will face challenges.

Last month, NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said that with a flat budget, NASA would lose $3.4 billion in buying power over that period of time (FY2018-2022).

President Trump may have been joking when he told Peggy Whitson that he wanted to get people to Mars while he was in office, but his budget request does not even support the Deep Space Gateway that has become the centerpiece of NASA's human spaceflight planning now that the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is being terminated.  While it is still conceptual, NASA officials describe it as a lunar orbiting facility that could support lunar surface operations by international and commercial partners (NASA still has no plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface itself) and be the embarkation point for astronauts heading to Mars on Deep Space Transports.

During a media briefing today, Acting NASA Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Andrew Hunter said that while the term Deep Space Gateway has been "used externally," it does not appear in the budget request.  Proceeding with the concept is "somewhat inhibited" by the flat, non-inflation adjusted budgets projected for the future, he said, while expressing hope that the Trump Administration and Congress can be convinced to support it later. 

The budget requests for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft are slightly less than what Congress appropriated for FY2017: $1.938 billion requested for SLS compared with $2.150 billion appropriated in FY2017, and $1.186 billion requested for Orion compared with $1.350 billion appropriated in FY2017. That certainly is not the level of support needed to accelerate human missions to Mars or even to get there in 2033 as proposed in the NASA Transition Authorization Act that Trump signed into law in March.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said today that the budget supports plans to send humans to orbit Mars "in the 2030s."

One surprise in the request today is termination of a fifth earth science mission.  The budget blueprint released in March called for terminating four -- PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder, OCO-3, and the earth-facing instruments on DSCOVR. The complete budget also calls for canceling the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI) being built by Harris Corporation for NOAA's JPSS-2 spacecraft.  RBI is a scanning radiometer that would continue measurements of Earth's reflected sunlight and emitted radiation currently obtained by CERES instruments.  It is being terminated because of cost growth and technical challenges.

The budget request confirms that NASA's Office of Education would be eliminated. The request includes $37 million for Education, but that covers only close out costs for grants and salaries, for example.  Hunter said that no funding is included for the Space Grant, EPSCoR or MUREP programs. All are very popular in Congress.  He even conceded that NASA expects Congress to add back money for some of those activities and has not yet determined how they would be managed absent the Office of Education.

Lightfoot summed it all up by saying "The hard choices are still there.  We can't do everything, but we certainly can do a lot."  He characterized the message from the Trump Administration as "keep going."

The budget request is just that -- a request.  Presidents propose budgets, but under the Constitution only Congress decides how much money to spend and on what.  Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, made that point today.  He said his committee would thoroughly analyze Trump's overall budget request for the government and hold hearings: "Only then can Congress put forward our own plan...."

More information about the NASA budget request is in's NASA FY2018 budget fact sheet.

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