What’s Happening in Space Policy December 17-31, 2023

What’s Happening in Space Policy December 17-31, 2023

Here is SpacePolicyOnline.com’s list of space policy events for the next two weeks, December 17-31, 2023, and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate will be in session at least part of the week of December 18. Otherwise both chambers are scheduled to meet only in pro forma sessions during this period.

During the Weeks

Change of plans for the Senate.  Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) decided to keep the Senate in session for at least part of this week in the hope a deal can be reached on providing aid to Ukraine and Israel in exchange for Democratic concessions on border control policies. The topic is not space-related so we won’t discuss it here, but any time the Senate is in session other bills can pass and nominations can be confirmed so we’ll be keeping an eye on what’s happening. Lt. Gen. Stephen Whiting’s nomination to be promoted to General and succeed Gen. James Dickinson as Commander of USSPACECOM is still pending, for example. Sen. Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) released his hold on hundreds of military nominations, but not those for four-star positions. Each nomination will have to be voted on individually, a time-consuming process.

The House went home for the year on Thursday, but Speaker Mike Johnson (R-LA) could call them back if the Senate succeeds in passing an aid/border package. Otherwise the House will return for legislative business on January 9. Both the House and Senate will meet in pro forma sessions between now and then as they always do these days to avoid the Constitutional requirement that one chamber needs the consent of the other before adjourning for more than three days. It also prevents the President from making “recess appointments” to fill vacancies when the Senate is in recess.

In this edition we are combining all the events we know about for the rest of the year, which is quickly coming to a close.  Though the events are few, there are some really important ones.

Tomorrow (Monday), Blue Origin will finally launch New Shepard on its first flight since the September 12, 2022 failure when the New Shepard-23 (NS-23) suborbital rocket exploded moments after liftoff. Fortunately no people were aboard, only science and technology experiments. Blue Origin, founded by Jeff Bezos, points to the success of their safety features that the capsule separated as designed when the rocket failed and made a safe landing. The experiments were undamaged. In fact, Blue Origin told SpacePolicyOnline.com yesterday that “most” of the 33 science experiments on tomorrow’s mission are reflights from NS-23. They did not reply by press time to a request for a list of them, however.

Blue Origin’s New Shepard NS-22 mission in flight August 4, 2022. Credit: Blue Origin. This flight carried six passengers and performed flawlessly. The next flight, NS-23, failed. No people were aboard that flight.

Blue Origin has revealed very little about what caused the failure and what they did to fix it, but did say in March the fundamenetal problem was nozzle overheating due a design change to the engine’s boundary layer cooling system. The FAA closed its investigation in September. The company has been saying it would launch “soon” for months and the day is finally here. New Shepard-24 (NS-24) is scheduled to lift off from Blue Origin’s launch site in West Texas at 8:30 am CENTRAL Time (9:30 am Eastern). A webcast will begin 20 minutes in advance.

Another important launch before the end of the year is DOD’s X-37B spaceplane. Scheduled to launch on December 7, it slipped a number of times.  Sometimes it was weather, sometimes it was “ground side” issues, and the most recent delay was to allow additional system checkouts. It’s not clear if those were checkouts of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket or the X-37B.

A technican walks towards one of DOD’s two X-37B spaceplanes after it landed at Kennedy Space Center on November 12, 2022. It was in orbit for 908 days. Photo credit: U.S. Space Force

In any case, the new launch date is December 28. The four-hour launch window opens at 7:00 pm ET. The X-37B is a super-secret program and little is known publicly about what it does during the very long durations it spends on orbit. The last flight lasted two-and-a-half years. The Chinese have their own version. They launched theirs for the third time last week.

Other events of note include the National Space Council meeting this Wednesday, December 20. It’s the third meeting under the leadership of Vice President Kamala Harris and will focus on international partnerships. The meeting is somewhere in D.C., but the White House hasn’t said where or what time. We’ll post whatever information we get in our Calendar entry.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday, December 17, are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Calendar or changes to these.

Monday, December 18

Tuesday, December 19

  • Return of SpX-29 Cargo Dragon, ISS undocking 5:05 pm ET (NASA TV begins 4:45 pm ET) [UPDATE, December 17, 5:40 pm ET: The undocking has been delayed another day to December 20 due to weather. Same undocking time.]

Wednesday, December 20

Thursday, December 21

Monday, December 25

Thursday, December 28

  • Launch of X-37B Spaceplane, KSC, 7:00 pm ET (opening of four hour launch window), SpaceX webcast begins 15 minutes before launch

This article has been updated.

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