What’s Happening in Space Policy December 31, 2023-January 8, 2024

What’s Happening in Space Policy December 31, 2023-January 8, 2024

Here is SpacePolicyOnline.com’s list of space policy events for the next week plus two days, December 31, 2023-January 8, 2024, and any insight we can offer about them. Except for pro forma sessions, the Senate and House are in recess until January 8 and January 9 respectively.

During the Weeks

Happy New Year’s Eve!

Yes, another year begins a few hours from now and 2024 is a Leap Year so we get that quadrennial extra day on February 29.

Tomorrow (Monday) is a federal holiday to welcome in the New Year, which promises to be busy, busy, busy for space programs and space policy.

For space aficionados, the old year ended on a high note with the December 28 SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch of DOD’s X-37B spaceplane followed just three hours later by SpaceX’s 98th and final launch of the year — another batch of Starlinks on a Falcon 9.

SpaceX may have been two short of their goal of 100 launches (primarily because of weather delays), but 98 in one year is truly remarkable (even though the two Starship launches were not successful) and Elon Musk is aiming for 144 in 2024. They’re getting right to work with launches scheduled for January 2 (Starlink) and January 3 (Sweden’s Ovzon3).

As important as those are, the headline-grabbing first launch of the year will be the United Launch Alliance’s debut of Vulcan-Centaur. This edition of What’s Happening goes through Monday, January 8, because that’s the targeted date for the launch and NASA is holding two pre-launch briefings this week so we’re wrapping it all together in this issue.

The launch is scheduled for 2:18 am ET on January 8 with NASA TV coverage beginning at 1:30 am ET. ULA calls the mission Cert-1 because it’s the first of two “certification” launches DOD requires to demonstrate the new rocket is ready to carry its most valuable satellites. Others call it the Astrobotic launch or the Peregrine launch since it will send Astrobotic’s Peregrine lander to the Moon. Here’s a photo of Peregrine being encapsulated in Vulcan’s payload fairing (nose cone) on November 21, 2023 and a video of them being placed atop the rocket on December 22, both courtesy of ULA.

Astrobotic built Peregrine as part of a Public-Private Partnership with NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program. NASA purchases delivery services from the CLPS contractors to put NASA science and technology payloads on the lunar surface. The CLPS contractors must design and build the landers and obtain launch services, finding non-NASA customers to close their business cases. Of the 21 payloads listed on Astrobotic’s website on Peregrine Mission-1, only six are identified as NASA’s. The other 15 are from a wide range of government, academic and commercial organizations around the world.

Organizations with payloads on Astrobotic’s Peregrine-1 mission. Credit: Astrobotic

Two of them are “memorial” payloads from Elysium Space and Celestis, two companies that send cremated remains into space or, in this case, to the Moon. That’s sacrilege to some Native Americans who consider the Moon as sacred, however. NASA included cremated remains of a famed scientist, Eugene Shoemaker, on the Lunar Prospector mission that deliberately crashed into the Moon in 1999 and the Navajo Nation strongly objected. On December 28, Arizona Public Radio reported that the President of the Navajo Nation is asking NASA to postpone this launch because NASA had promised to consult with them before authorizing such flights in the future and they were not consulted about this mission.

But this is not a NASA mission. It’s a commercial mission by Astrobotic and NASA does not control what other payloads are aboard. Whether commercial companies have any obligation, regulatory or otherwise, to consult with Native Americans in matters like this is an interesting policy question. Astrobotic is just one of several CLPS contractors. Intuitive Machines is getting ready to launch its first lander next month, for example, so the issue transcends this one mission. We’ve asked Astrobotic, the FAA (which regulates commercial launches) and NASA for comment, but with the holidays haven’t gotten answers yet.

In any event, NASA will have two briefings this week to discuss their payloads on Peregrine. Thursday is a science briefing with CLPS program scientist Paul Niles, CLPS program manager Chris Culbert, and director of Technology Maturation for the Space Technology Mission Directorate Nikki Werkheiser, plus representatives of 5 of the 6 payloads. On Friday is a “lunar delivery readiness” telecon with officials from NASA, Astrobotic, ULA, and the 45th Weather Squadron.

Over the weekend, the first of the annual space-related conferences begins in New Orleans. The American Astronomical Society’s winter meeting Sunday-Thursday is the place to be to find out all the exciting discoveries in astrophysics over the last year. If you can make the trip. It’s an in-person meeting only. NASA’s three astrophysics Program Analysis Groups (PAGs) will meet in conjunction with the AAS meeting and there is a virtual option for those. The Exoplanet Exploration PAG meets Saturday-Sunday and is joined by the other two — Cosmic Origins PAG and Physics of the Cosmos PAG — on Sunday afternoon.

Since this edition of What’s Happening covers through January 8, we will mention that a second conference begins that day — AIAA’s SciTech Forum in Orlando. We’ll have more on that next week.

We’ll also talk about Congress’s return next week. Officially the 2nd session of the 118th Congress convenes on January 3, but only pro forma sessions are scheduled until the Senate returns for legislative business on January 8 and the House on January 9. They have a heavy workload ahead of them.

The events we know about as of Sunday morning, December 31, are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Calendar or changes to these.

Monday, January 1

Thursday, January 4

Friday, January 5

Saturday-Sunday, January 6-7

Sunday, January 7

  • Joint PAG Session (of the three NASA astrophysics Program Analysis Groups), New Orleans, LA/virtual (in conjunction with the AAS winter meeting), 3:00-5:00 pm CENTRAL Time (4:00-6:00 pm Eastern)

Sunday-Thursday, January 7-11

Monday, January 8

Monday-Friday, January 8-12


Clarification:  This article was updated to clarify that the count of six NASA payloads on Peregrine is from the list on  Astrobotic’s website. NASA says it has five. The sixth is the NASA-developed Navigation Doppler Lidar that is part of the lander. Joel Kearns, Deputy Associate Administrator for Exploration in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate said at a January 5, 2024 media briefing that NASA made the sensor available to Astrobotic and does not consider it to be a CLPS payload.

This article has been updated.

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