What’s Happening in Space Policy April 18-24, 2021

What’s Happening in Space Policy April 18-24, 2021

Here is SpacePolicyOnline.com’s list of space policy events for the week of April 18-24, 2021 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

First thing tomorrow (Monday) morning, NASA will attempt the first flight of the Ingenuity helicopter on Mars. The flight was delayed a week because the pre-flight computer and the flight computer weren’t synched.  NASA sent a software update and now project managers are ready to try to achieve the first powered flight on another planet. The 40-second flight to an altitude of 3 meters (10 feet) will take place at 3:15 am ET under the current plan. Data will begin arriving at JPL at 6:15 am ET and NASA’s livestream will begin then. A press briefing is scheduled for 2:00 pm ET. It will take a while to get all the data back, though.  First will be engineering data and black/white photos from Ingenuity itself. Color photos and color video taken by a camera on the Perseverance rover will come back over the next couple of days.

If all goes well, it will be a great start to a busy week.

The Senate will hold its confirmation hearing for former Senator Bill Nelson to be NASA Administrator on Wednesday morning. He will appear with a nominee for a completely unrelated position (a commissioner for the Federal Trade Commission), so the members will be splitting their time.

We don’t follow the FTC so have no idea if that nomination is controversial, but the Nelson part of the hearing is sure to be interesting, especially after the sudden announcement two days ago of SpaceX as the sole winner of NASA’s HLS “Option A” contract to put astronauts back on the Moon as part of the Artemis program. The contract is only for the first landing (plus a test flight in advance). Other companies will have a chance in an upcoming competition for future missions, but the decision certainly has sparked a lot of conversation about why it was announced before Nelson is on board and why only one instead of two contractors. Previously NASA insisted it wanted to pick two so they had a backup in case one company failed. The Source Selection Statement left no doubt the problem is inadequate funding from Congress, which begs the issue of whether NASA is hoping the decision will prompt Congress to provide more in FY2022.  Nelson doesn’t work for NASA yet, of course, so can’t answer any questions about what led to this decision, but Senators can try to get him on the record as to what he’ll do assuming he is confirmed as expected. And we might learn  how the Senators feel about the decision.

On the national security space side of things, Gen. James Dickinson, Commander of U.S. Space Command, will testify to both the Senate and House Armed Services Committees this week on the status of strategic forces and his FY2022 budget request. He will be joined by Adm. Charles Richard, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, at both (SASC on Tuesday, HASC on Wednesday).  The Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities, Melissa Dalton, also will be at the witness table for the HASC hearing.

Off the Hill, everything is on track at the moment for Thursday’s launch of Crew-2 to the International Space Station on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon Endeavour. NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide, and ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet will lift off at 6:11 am ET and dock with ISS on Friday at 5:30 am ET. NASA has lots of pre- and post-launch briefings planned.

Fun fact: McArthur is married to astronaut Bob Behnken. He and Doug Hurley were the first crew to launch on a Crew Dragon last year. These spacecraft are reusable so this is the very spacecraft he flew. As its first crew, Behnken and Hurley got to choose the name “Endeavour.” They picked it in part because they both flew on the Space Shuttle Endeavour. Crew Dragon “Resilience” is currently docked to the ISS and will return on April 28. Its crew chose that name to honor the resilience of everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic. SpaceX is currently building a third Crew Dragon.

NASA also will hold a press conference on Wednesday with Kate Rubins who just returned from the ISS yesterday morning with two Russian colleagues on Soyuz MS-17.  She will talk about what she did during her 185-day mission.  For those keeping track, with Soyuz MS-17’s return, there now are seven people on ISS (four Americans, two Russians, one Japanese).  That will shoot up to 11 when Crew-2 docks (six Americans, two Russians, two Japanese, one European) and then return to what is now the normal crew complement of seven when Crew-1 returns home at the end of the month (three Americans, two Russians, one Japanese, one European). It is indeed the INTERNATIONAL Space Station.

NASA’s selection of SpaceX’s Starship for the Artemis program is bound to draw even more attention to SpaceX’s tests at Boca Chica, TX.  The next *could* take place on Tuesday based on an FAA NOTAM warning aircraft to avoid the area.  The last four Starship prototype launch and landing tests ended in spectacular fireballs. Instead of drawing criticism, Musk wins public praise for his testing philosophy that failures are learning experiences and one simply moves on to the next test as quickly as possible. He’s been spending his company’s money on Starship so far, not taxpayer dollars. Whether the public will view any failures differently now their money also is at stake will be interesting to watch. The contract with NASA is for just $2.9 billion, however. That may seem a lot to most people, but in terms of building big rockets capable of carrying astronauts to the Moon, it really is a bargain. And it’s fixed-price, not cost-plus.

Lastly, Thursday is Earth Day.  For all the talk of people going to the Moon and Mars, Earth is the only home we have for the indefinite future. Go out and give Earth a hug on Thursday and vow to take better care of our Pale Blue Dot.



Monday, April 19

Monday-Thursday, April 19-22

Monday, April 19 – Friday, April 30

Tuesday, April 20

Wednesday, April 21

Thursday, April 22

Friday, April 23

  • Crew-2 Arrival at ISS: dock, 5:30 am ET; hatch opening, 7:35 am ET; welcome ceremony, 8:05 am ET (NASA TV runs continually from 2:00 am April 22 through these events)

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