Today’s Tidbits: September 1, 2021

Today’s Tidbits: September 1, 2021

Here are’s tidbits for September 1, 2021: Branson’s spaceflight violated FAA airspace rules; Landsat 9 ready for launch despite supply chain disruption; HASC increases DOD FY2022 funding, wants commercial space focus. Be sure to check our website for feature stories and follow us on Twitter (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more news and live tweeting of events.

Branson’s Spaceflight Violated FAA’s Airspace Rules

The FAA confirmed to this evening that the July 11 Virgin Galactic spaceflight that took Richard Branson to space violated FAA’s airspace rules.

During its July 11, 2021 flight, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo vehicle deviated from its Air Traffic Control clearance as it returned to Spaceport America. The FAA investigation is ongoing. — FAA spokesperson

The statement is in response to an article in the New Yorker today by Nicholas Schmidle, a New Yorker journalist who recently published a book about Virgin Galactic’s development of SpaceShipTwo and the pilots who fly it — Test Gods: Virgin Galactic and the Making of a Modern Astronaut.

In today’s piece, he reveals that the July 11 flight experienced problems that could have imperiled the people aboard. Although it landed safely, the FAA is investigating because for 1 minute and 41 seconds it strayed outside its designated airspace and the company did not “initially” notify the FAA.  Schmidle reports the company is now working with the FAA “to update procedures for alerting” the agency.

Schmidle goes on to discuss Virgin Galactic’s treatment of its flight-test director, Mark Stucky, who had been critical of the company’s safety culture in interviews for Schmidle’s book. Stucky was “stripped of his flight duties” after the book was published and fired by the company days after Branson’s flight.

Virgin Galactic did not respond to our request for comment on the New Yorker story by press time.

Landsat 9 Ready for Launch Despite Supply Chain Disruption

The Landsat 9 spacecraft is ready for launch on an Atlas 5 rocket on September 23 from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CA.

That is a week later than planned because of late delivery of liquid nitrogen needed for pre-launch tests and launch. In response to a question from at a media briefing yesterday, Del Jenstrom, NASA’s Landsat 9 program manager, confirmed a report in Santa Barbara’s Noozhawk that COVID-19 supply chain disruptions caused the slip from September 15.

Jenstrom explained there is no shortage of liquid nitrogen (LN2) in the Los Angeles area, but of trucks to deliver it. The trucks are being coverted to carry liquid oxygen for COVID patients because that earns “much higher premiums.” The Defense Logistics Agency (DLA) is in charge of getting the LN2 for Vandenberg (where it is converted into a gas) from a company named Airgas. “We learned Monday of last week” that Vandenberg’s supplies were “critically low.”

So the NASA Deputy Administrator, Pam Melroy, contacted senior leaders at DLA and together they spurred a recovery effort and … Airgas is bringing multiple tankers, a dozen or so, LNG tankers, from the Gulf Goast to increase deliveries of liquid nitrogen to the Base. These tankers support the oil industry down there and they’re coming West for a few weeks to support deliveries to Vandenberg and most of those tankers came in over the weekend.

The Atlas V rocket first must get through a Wet Dress Rehearsal (WDR), for which the LN2 is needed, before the launch date and time are fixed, but Jenstrom says the current plan is launch at about 11:00 am Pacific Daylight Time (2:00 pm Eastern) on September 23.

Landsat 9 is the ninth in the Landsat series that began in 1972 (one, Landsat 6, did not reach orbit). It will join Landsat 8, launched in 2013, and will replace Landsat 7, which has been operating since 1999. The series of spacecraft is providing a decades-long set of comparable multispectral data about Earth’s land surface that are used globally to understand how the land is changing over time due to natural and human-induced causes.

NASA builds and launches the satellites. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) operates them and distributes and archives the data.

HASC Adds $23.9 Billion for DOD, Wants Commercial Space Focus

The House Armed Services Committee (HASC) is still working on its markup of the FY2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, HR. 4350) as of press time (close to midnight EDT), but earlier today it adopted an amendment to increase DOD’s FY2022 budget by $23.9 billion over President Biden’s request of $715 billion.

HASC Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) opposed the amendment, which was offered by Ranking Member Mike Rogers (R-AL), but a significant number of Democrats voted for it anyway. Rogers said at the outset that he had bipartisan support and expected it to pass easily and he was right. The vote was 42-17.

The Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) added a similar amount during its markup last month making it all but certain that the final version of the bill will come in at the higher figure. It is an authorization bill, however, not an appropriation. The House Appropriations Committee approved $706 billion. The House has not taken up the bill yet.

The Rogers amendment goes into detail about where the money would be spent. He said some of the additions are from the Unfunded Priorities Lists each of the services is required to provide to Congress and others were requests from members. A small amount is for space activities.

Separately, the committee adopted an en bloc amendment to the Strategic Forces portion of the bill that includes several space-related provisions.

Perhaps the most interesting was also proposed by Rogers (#1427). It states that the U.S. Space Force may not establish a program of record until the Service Acquistion Executive “determines that there is no commercially available capability that would meet the threshold objectives for that proposed program” and submits that determination to Congress.

An en bloc amendment to the Cyber, Innovative Techologies and Information Systems (CITI) portion of the bill also included a space-related provision. Proposed by Rep. Jason Crow (D-CO), it directs the Chief of Space Operations (Gen. Jay Raymond), in coordination with the Chief Scientist of the Space Force (Joel Mozer), to establish a university consortium for space technology development.

It is not clear when the committee will complete its markup.  It is not unusual for these HASC markups to go past midnight although Smith and Rogers tried to speed things up today by getting unanimous consent from the members that they speak for only 3 minutes instead of 5 minutes on their proposal amendments. But with 780 amendments to consider, even with many of them grouped into en bloc amendments, it takes a long time to debate the weighty issues pending before the committee.

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