3 August 2018
Congress’ growing space divide
By Jacqueline Klimas and Bryan Bender
with help from Brianna Gurciullo, Connor O’Brien,
Wesley Morgan and Adrienne Hurst


CAPITOL HILL AT ODDS OVER SPACE REFORMS. The dramatically differing approaches of the House and Senate for overhauling commercial space regulations became clearer this week with the markup of a bill that cleared the Senate Commerce Committee and sets up a clash not only between both chambers but also likely with the Trump White House.

The House is looking to greatly enhance the role of the Commerce Department, keeping with the overall thrust of President Donald Trump’s Space Policy Directive-2 and Space Policy Directive-3. The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, which passed the House in April, and the American Space SAFE Management Act, approved by the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee, seek a “one-stop-shop” for space regulations at Commerce and would empower the agency to take the lead in space traffic management.

But the Senate bill leaves many responsibilities in the Transportation Department. For example, the proposed Space Frontier Act establishes an assistant secretary for commercial transportation within the Federal Aviation Administration, directs the department to reform existing launch regulations within a year and urges it to use all existing authorities to speed up the process.

“For companies who are experimenting with exciting new commercial activities in space, the bill clarifies that they can continue to seek authorization through the Department of Transportation’s payload review process while Congress ponders more expansive changes to agency authorities,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill, explained in a statement.

The panel also adopted an amendment by Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) to require a study on military sites used for commercial space launches and reentries and another from Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), which states it’s the “policy of the United States to have consistent standards across federal agencies that minimize the risk from orbital debris.”

The Trump test. Would the president sign the Senate bill? That’s tough to imagine, says Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a private foundation focused on peaceful access to space. “The space policy directives were the product of an interagency process with inputs from all the major players,” he explains. “They reflect not only the perspective of the White House, but also the consensus of all the agencies involved, so I find it very difficult to believe they would go along with such a radical shift.” In fact, Weeden believes the Senate bill could “stall ... significant portions” of the White House reforms.

There's widespread agreement in at least one area: the need to speed up the licensing process for Earth observation satellites to within 90 days — with applications automatically approved if the government fails to respond in that time frame.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is co-sponsor of a bipartisan bill that would keep most oversight of commercial space within the Transportation Department — not the Commerce Department, as called for by legislation in the House and recent directives from President Donald Trump. | Rhona Wise/AFP/Getty Images

SPACE FORCE UPDATE: Congress may be holding off until next year to consider legislation to create a new branch of the military but the Pentagon is raring to go in carrying out Trump’s marching orders — as laid out in a draft report obtained this week by our friends at Defense One.

The road map says the Pentagon plans to create three of the four main components for a Space Force: a combat command, an agency to oversee the acquisition of satellites, and a community of space warfighters drawn from all branches of the military. Formally establishing a separate branch of the armed forces would have to wait for Congress, the Pentagon acknowledges.

The Pentagon was scheduled to roll out its report, which was required by Congress, but a Tuesday briefing with Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan was postponed without explanation. “We are in the final coordination stages of the report to Congress on the recommended organization and management structure of space components for the Department of Defense. We will release the report when coordination is complete which we anticipate will be soon,” Lt. Col. Jamie Davis said in a statement.

But more influential players are raising questions about the wisdom of a new military branch, including former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who warned this week the effort involved would drain resources and impede progress on speeding up the acquisition of space systems.

"Anybody who thinks this can be done on the cheap, I think they're wrong,” she told a discussion hosted by the Brookings Institution. “I think it will sap resources away that could otherwise go to capabilities,” James added. “I think there will be a ton of workforce issues. You can organize and reorganize in any way you could think of, but the real question is the juice worth the squeeze? You will spend years ... I'll bet it's five to 10. ... Eventually, it'll settle out, but you will go through years of thrashing.”

Her remarks were widely seen as channeling Air Force leaders, who are not keen on such an overhaul. “None of them are in favor of a Space Force, I say none of the top leaders, but they’re stuck,” James said. “The president has said it and it will be interesting to see how they now deal with it.”

A more effective approach, in her view, is the National Defense Authorization Act’s new mandate that the Pentagon create a space command under the U.S. Strategic Command.

DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE? The raison d’etre of the Space Force proposal is what military and political leaders describe as the growing threat posed by Russia and China in space. But there remains a dearth of independent public information to fully assess those warnings, says Weeden, of the Secure World Foundation, which he describes as part think tank, part charitable organization.

“There’s been increasing rhetoric ... about the militarization of space and the potential for conflicts on Earth to extend into space,” says Weeden, who earlier this year completed a detailed assessment of “counter-space” capabilities. “That’s driven in part by reports about anti-satellite testing in Russia and China...The report really grew out of our frustration at the level of publicly available information on this topic.”

He adds: “A lot of what you get are public statements from military leadership or politicians...and it’s really hard to get down to details and...sort through what might be real, what might be hype.”

The good news is that the worst case scenarios have yet to materialize — what he describes as “the most destructive kinetic attacks that can cause really harmful long-term damage to the space environment,” or “weapons to blow up satellites.”

“While there is research and development going on to develop those capabilities," he says, "what we found is there’s yet to be any publicly-known example of them being used. Instead, “what seems to be of the most utility are the non-kinetic things, like jamming and cyber attacks.”

“Cautiously skeptical." That's Weeden's take on whether a Space Force is needed. “The Space Force debate is really about how should the national security space community be organized,” he explains. “A lot of people pushing for a Space Force or Space Corps are doing it because they’re frustrated the Air Force has not, in their minds, done enough to address these challenges.”

“I have two big concerns: one is that we’re going to put a lot of time, energy, and resources into doing the reorganization instead of actually fixing the problems. The other is creating a separate Space Force is going to have the unintended consequence of hurting integration of space with the rest of the military’s capabilities.”

Weeden also unpacked the various pieces of legislation on commercial space moving through Congress, the foundation’s work in crafting international guidelines, and how it’s partnering with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to come up with standards for servicing satellites in orbit. Read the full interview here.

Is the threat of a space war with Russia and China being overblown? "It’s really hard to get down to details and...sort through what might be real, what might be hype," says Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation | POLITICO

MILITARY SPACE DEPOTS? The Pentagon is already eyeing the possibility of storing combat gear in orbit, a top general responsible for moving troops and equipment around the globe told defense reporters Thursday, predicting such “mobility in space” within a decade.

“What happens if we preposition cargo in space? I don’t have to use a water means, I don’t have to use terrestrial means. I can send a vehicle in space and come back down,” said Gen. Carlton Everhart, commander of the Air Mobility Command. “It could be a Humvee. I’m willing to stick anything up there” if it means getting it to ground forces in a hot spot more quickly when war breaks out.

Everhart, who said he visited SpaceX and Virgin Orbit last week, called it an area ripe for partnership with the commercial space industry. “I think within the next five years we can be right in on that concept stage, and within five years after that it’ll be happening,” Everhart predicted. He said that while cooperation with industry in this area is in an “embryonic stage,” he’s confident that companies will “come up with innovative ways and they won’t be encumbered by a long acquisition process.”

FROM RUSSIA WITH ... MORE ROCKET ENGINES. There’s little that gets some Democrats and Republicans to grit their teeth more than to remind them that one of the military’s largest space launch providers, the Boeing-Lockheed joint venture United Launch Alliance, remains dependent on the Russian-made RD-180 engine for the first stage of its Atlas V rocket. (Well, maybe the fact that the Russians are transporting American astronauts to the International Space Station burns them up more).

But ULA apparently has little choice than to keep those engines coming — and just ordered more, according to several reports out of Moscow. Congress has taken a series of steps in recent years to ensure a U.S. alternative is developed for the next-generation of ULA launch vehicles — including banning any purchases of the RD-180 for national security missions beyond 2022.

ULA said in a statement that the Atlas V “continues to be very popular in both the civil and commercial markets and RD-180 engines will be used for those missions.” But it also looked ahead. “Now is the right time to develop an American engine for Vulcan Centaur, ULA's future launch vehicle,” it said in a statement. “That is why we have been working for two years with both Blue Origin to develop its BE-4 engine and Aerojet Rocketdyne to develop its AR-1 engine.”

The Russians trolled the U.S. space launch industry with the news, however. The embassy in Washington rubbed it in by declaring the RD-180 design by Energomash “cheaper and more reliable.” The Russians also report that the engine has been certified by NASA and the Air Force for crewed space missions.

STARLINER SPACECRAFT DELAYED: A test flight of Boeing’s CST-100 Starliner will be delayed until late this year or early next after the capsule experienced problems with its abort engines, John Mulholland, vice president and program manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program, announced this week. Mulholland said he’s “confident” Boeing has figured out why several abort engine valves did not fully close, and said the company is “implementing corrective actions now.”

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program is developing two capsules to eventually deliver American astronauts to the International Space Station. One is the Starliner, and the other is SpaceX’s Dragon.

The Starliner delay will push Boeing’s first crewed test flight to the middle of 2019 — significantly later than the initial plan for this November. SpaceX is expected to make its first crewed flight in April 2019, according to an updated test schedule published Thursday by NASA, making it clear that both offerings still have a ways to go, as NASA’s safety board advised this week.

But today is still the big NASA announcement of the first crew of astronauts to fly in each capsule under the Commercial Crew Program — to be live streamed from Houston at 11 a.m.

NASA DOUSES ISS PRIVATIZATION, MARS TERRAFORMING. NASA splashed more cold water this week on the viability of the Trump administration’s plan to privatize the International Space Station by 2025 and also dashed any hopes that the atmosphere on Mars could be modified anytime soon to support long-term colonization.

The NASA inspector general’s conclusions on the ISS plan are bound to strengthen the arguments of the powerful bloc of lawmakers who want to maintain NASA’s role in running the ISS for years to come, including the proposed Senate bill’s mandate of at least until 2030. As for creating an Earth-like atmosphere on Mars or other planets? “Not Possible Using Present-Day Technology,” another new NASA study proclaims.

Creating an Earth-like atmosphere on Mars for long-term colonization “is not possible using present-day technology, ” NASA concluded this week. | NASA

TOP DOC: White House outlines space R&D priorities. As agencies develop budget priorities for fiscal year 2020, they should give special attention to space exploration and other potential breakthroughs in orbit that could have significant applications on Earth, according to a memo from the White House Office of Management and Budget that went to executive branch agencies this week. They include long-duration spaceflight, in-space and additive manufacturing, biopharmaceuticals, materials science and optical communication. “Research investments should be focused on ensuring American leadership in space,” it says. “Agencies should prioritize demonstrations and flight tests to ensure an industrial base for commercial activity in space and on celestial bodies.”

But what’s missing? Any direct reference to climate science or the environment, as pointed out in this commentary posted overnight. It notes that the White House memo coincided this week with more dire government warnings about climate change. And a new public opinion poll also indicates that Americans believe climate change research should be top a NASA priority.

TOP DOC II: Hitch rides to space, government urged. Placing more government payloads on commercial satellites could help speed up the timeline to get sensors and communications equipment into orbit, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. Such “hosted payloads” have already saved the Pentagon hundreds of millions of dollars but some military officials still believe it is “too difficult” to match government programs to commercial satellites, GAO found. The report recommends that the Defense Department require all programs that rely on commercial satellites share their data with a central office — possibly the Air Force Hosted Payload Office — to encourage wider use of the approach.

One government agency, however, is seeking commercial players to ride along on one of its upcoming missions. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration this week announced it wants to enlist small satellite developers for a new “rideshare” program on the launch of the Joint Polar Satellite System-2, scheduled for 2022.

It’s part of an effort to study what the future space-based weather system should look like and if “future satellite instruments with lower cost and/or increased performance could provide significant benefit in NOAA’s future observing systems,” the agency says. “This will give them a relatively low cost opportunity to demonstrate their capabilities,” explains Karen St. Germain, director of NOAA’s Office of Systems Architecture and Advanced Planning.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “What steps do we need to be taking so that we don’t have to rely on sending Bruce Willis to space to save humanity?” — Sen. Ted Cruz to Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA, on the planetary threat of asteroids, at a Commerce Committee hearing, Aug. 1, 2018, (They both said they’re fans of the film "Armageddon.")

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