Today’s Tidbits: May 17, 2020

Today’s Tidbits: May 17, 2020

Here are’s tidbits for May 17, 2020: ULA launches X-37B; new competition for Space Command HQ; new members for Space Council Users’ Advisory Group; Roscosmos wants NASA to stop by.  Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

X-37B Launches on Sixth Mission

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) successfully launched the X-37B on its sixth mission this morning (May 17). It was delayed one day due to weather, but went off this morning at 9:14 am ET without a hitch.

X-37B on its way to orbit atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, May 17, 2020. Screengrab.

There are two spaceflight-worthy X-37B spaceplanes, which look like small space shuttles, but do not carry crews.  Little is known publicly about their ultra-classified missions other than that they remain in orbit for very long periods of time (more than two years on the most recent flight) and autonomously return to land on Earth. In total, the two vehicles have spent more than 7 years in space.

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett and Chief of Space Operations of the U.S. Space Force (USSF) Gen. Jay Raymond want to declassify more of DOD’s space activities to better inform the public and political stakeholders about the importance of space assets and threats to them. They released a bit more information about the experiments on this mission than in the past, but how long it will remain in orbit and exactly what it will do up there most of the time remains shrouded in secrecy.

The USSF was created as a separate military service under the Air Force on December 20, 2019.  It was in charge of launch operations today, but the X-37B itself remains an Air Force program under the Rapid Capabilities Office.

The USSF unveiled its new flag on Friday at the White House, by the way.

The U.S. Space Force (USSF) flag is unfurled at the White House, May 15, 2020. L-R: Secretary of Defense Mark Esper; Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett; Chief of Space Operations, USSF, and Commander, U.S. Space Command, Gen. Jay Raymond; USSF Chief Master Sergeant Roger Towberman (holding flag); President Trump. Credit: USSF website

Space Command HQ Competition

The USSF is one of the six military services.  Its mandate is to “organize, train and equip” personnel.  It supports, but is different from, U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM), one of 11 unified combatant commands responsible for warfighting.  The two are often confused especially since Gen. Raymond currently commands both.

USSPACECOM was created in 1985, but abolished in a 2002 reorganization.  President Trump reestablished it in August 2019.  It is temporarily headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, CO, but where to put its permanent headquarters is a politically-charged issue. Having a unified command in one’s state or district brings not only prestige, but jobs.

Last May, the Air Force said it had narrowed the list of possible sites to six finalists, four in Colorado (Buckley, Peterson and Schreiver Air Force Bases and Cheyenne Mountain Air Force Station), one in California (Vandenberg Air Force Base), and one in Alabama (Redstone Arsenal). Politicians from Florida, in particular, have been arguing it should be located there and apparently succeeded in reopening the debate.

On Friday, the Air Force  announced new “screening and evaluation criteria” to “increase the number of locations eligible for consideration.”  One criterion is that it be within 25 miles of a military base.  There are a lot of them in the country, so competition is expected to be fierce. Rep. Mike Turner, for example, wants it in Dayton, OH, home to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

Not everyone is pleased, though.  Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), chairman the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, called it “worse than a boondoggle, it’s a moondoggle.”  Cooper and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) were the bipartisan duo who came up with the idea of a “Space Corps” long before President Trump got involved and it ended up being called the U.S. Space Force (a long story that has been the subject of many articles on this website). He said there are only a handful of states qualified to host USSPACECOM “and to tempt 45 other states during a time of record unemployment is senseless and cruel.”

Pentagon leaders have said for months that a final decision will not be made until after the November elections and Friday’s announcement reiterated that the selection will be made “in early 2021.”  The Air Force said USSPACECOM will remain where it is for the next six years in any case, “until a permanent headquarters location is selected and facilities are ready.”

Space Council Users’ Advisory Group Update

Along with announcing its next meeting (on Tuesday, May 19), the White House National Space Council is nominating individuals to serve on its Users’ Advisory Group (UAG).  Members serve a 2-year term and that term is up for the original 27 members. The UAG is administered by NASA, so the nominations are to the NASA Administrator, who now officially will appoint them.

Former Rep. John Culberson (R-TX)

The new list is much the same as the old.  There are 28 members now instead of 27.  Four on the original list are rotating off and five are added.  The rest remain the same.

The four departures are Steve Crisafulli, former speaker of the Florida House of Representatives; Marillyn Hewson, Chairman, President, and CEO of Lockheed Martin, who is retiring as President and CEO (her successor in those positions, James Taiclet, is taking her place on the UAG); Eric Schmidt of Alphabet (Google’s parent company); and David Thompson, formerly head of Orbital ATK, which was acquired by Northrop Grumman (represented on the UAG by Kathy Warden).

The five newcomers are John Culberson, former Congressman (R-TX) and avid NASA supporter; Eileen Drake, President and CEO of Aerojet Rocketdyne; Bruce Jakosky, professor of geological sciences and Associate Director of the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado (the first practicing scientist on the UAG, he is principal investigator of the MAVEN mission orbiting Mars); Jeanette Nuñez, Lieutenant Governor of Florida and Chairman of the Board, Space Florida; and Taiclet from Lockheed Martin.

Once appointed, the full membership list is as follows (those marked with an asterisk were already reappointed on April 23, 2020).

  • Adm. James Ellis, Jr., (Ret.)* (Chair), Former Commander, U.S. Strategic Command
  • Buzz Aldrin, Apollo 11 astronaut
  • Tory Bruno, President and CEO, United Launch Alliance
  • David Calhoun, President and CEO, The Boeing Company
  • Dean Cheng, Scholar at the Heritage Foundation
  • Col. Eileen Collins (Ret.), former NASA shuttle astronaut
  • John Culberson, former U.S. Congressman (R-TX)
  • Mary Lynne Dittmar, President and CEO, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration
  • Eileen Drake, President and CEO, Aerojet Rocketdyne
  • Tim Ellis, CEO, Relativity Space
  • Homer Hickam, former NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center engineer; Author of “Rocket Boys”
  • Kay Ivey, Governor of Alabama
  • Bruce Jakosky, Associate Director, Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, University of Colorado
  • Fred Klipsch,* Chairman and CEO (Ret.), Klipsch Audio Technologies
  • Gen. Les Lyles (Ret.), Chairman, NASA Advisory Council
  • Col. Pam Melroy (Ret.), former NASA shuttle astronaut, former DARPA Deputy Director, Tactical Technology Office
  • Jeanette Nuñez, Lt. Governor of Florida, Chairman of the Board, Space Florida
  • Fatih Ozmen, CEO, Sierra Nevada Corporation
  • Harrison H. Schmitt, Apollo 17 astronaut, former U.S. Senator (R-NM)
  • Gwynne Shotwell, President and COO, SpaceX
  • Robert H. Smith, CEO, Blue Origin
  • Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation
  • James D. Taiclet, Jr., Board member (and incoming President and CEO), Lockheed Martin
  • Pamela Vaughan, STEM Integration Specialist for the Arkansas Department of Education
  • Mandy Vaughn, President, VOX Space
  • Kathy Warden, Chairman, CEO, and President, Northrop Grumman
  • Stuart O. Witt, former Navy pilot and founder, Mojave Air and Spaceport
  • David Wolf, former NASA astronaut, Purdue University

Roscosmos Wants NASA to Visit, Talk About Lunar Plans

Sergey Savelyev, Deputy Director General for International Cooperation of Russia’s space State Corporation Roscosmos, said Roscosmos invited the head of NASA, Jim Bridenstine, to visit Russia but “we did not receive a response.”

In a statement on the Roscosmos website, Savelyev said (per Google translate): “We officially invited the leadership of NASA to ourselves, but we did not receive a response. I hope that he will follow, and will follow in a positive way.”

Savelyev referred to the fact that Bridenstine invited Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin to visit the United States, but later withdrew the invitation under pressure from “Senators.”

Bridenstine did, in fact, rescind the invitation under bipartisan Senate pressure.  Rogozin was Deputy Prime Minister of Russia in charge of the aerospace and defense sectors when it annexed Crimea in 2014 and, along with others, is sanctioned by the United States and other countries. He is not allowed to travel here.

Russia is a partner in the International Space Station (ISS) and NASA hopes it will also become a partner in the Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon for a sustainable program of exploration.

Despite the changed geopolitical climate after Russia’s action in Crimea and intervention in the 2016 U.S. elections, U.S.-Russian cooperation on ISS has continued unimpeded.  The outlook for future cooperation is less clear.  Savelyev complained that “direct communications channels … in a number of areas have been noticeably depleted.” He said “ambitious projects” like lunar exploration “could become a serious factor for the interaction of the two countries in difficult times.”

NASA is hoping Russia will provide an airlock for the Gateway, a small space station that will orbit the Moon. Gateway program manager Dan Hartman told the NASA Advisory Council last week, however, that NASA is only in “very, very preliminary  discussions” with Roscosmos about that.

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