What’s Happening in Space Policy December 4-9, 2017

What’s Happening in Space Policy December 4-9, 2017

Here is our list of space policy events for the week of December 4-9, 2017 and any insight we can offer about them.  The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

Friday is the deadline for Congress to do something about funding the government.  The government is currently operating at last year’s spending levels under a  Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on December 8.  Yesterday, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee introduced a bill to extend that deadline to December 22.

Some Democrats have raised the specter of allowing the government to shut down if the final FY2018 appropriations bill does not resolve the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) “Dreamers” immigration issue; other Democrats say they would never shut down the government as the Republicans did during the Clinton and Obama Administrations.  Time will tell if those who want to use the appropriations process to fight the immigration battle will make their stand with this extension of the CR.  Congressional Republicans argue that the deadline for a DACA solution is not until March, so this is not the time to focus on it.  President Trump, however, tweeted on Tuesday morning that “I don’t see a deal” with Democrats on the budget, prompting congressional Democratic leaders Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Chuck Schumer to withdraw from a scheduled meeting with the President later that day to negotiate that deal.  The President must sign whatever Congress passes.

That is only one of the obstacles to reaching final agreement on FY2018 appropriations.  The FY2018 budget is still subject to the caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA). If Congress appropriates more than allowed by the caps, as it is poised to do based on appropriations action to date, automatic across-the-board cuts called sequestration would go into effect.  The impetus behind the BCA was a drive to cut the deficit, but the Senate just passed a tax reform bill that some analysts conclude would add $1 trillion to the deficit, causing Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) to vote against it.  He was the only Republican to vote no, suggesting that deficit reduction is not as compelling an issue for Republicans as in the past, which may mean greater willingness to relax the budget caps.  Or they could be relaxed only for defense and not non-defense (e.g. NASA and NOAA).  President Trump’s budget request called for increasing defense spending while cutting an equivalent amount from non-defense, but so far Congress has rejected many of the deep non-defense cuts he proposed.

To add another wrinkle, rumors are that the December 22 date is just another temporary milestone that will be followed by a third CR  to extend the deadline into January.  The idea apparently is that between now and December 22 the parties will reach agreement on what to do about the BCA caps, but more time will be needed to write a conforming appropriations package.  That means the government will operate under a CR for more than one-quarter of FY2018, creating budget uncertainty for all agencies funded through appropriations.  DOD officials and the chairmen of the House and Senate Armed Services Committees (HASC’s Rep. Mac Thornberry and SASC’s Sen. John McCain) have railed against CRs.  Secretary of Defense Mattis sent a letter to Congress in September with four pages of specific negative impacts of operating under a FY2018 CR, especially on training, readiness and maintenance.  He added, though, that the real threat to DOD and national security is the BCA caps themselves (which will exist through FY2025 under current law).

How DOD, NASA and NOAA space programs ultimately will fare in FY2018 is anyone’s guess.  Stay tuned.

Also this week, the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee will hold a hearing on “NASA’s Next Four Large Telescopes.”  The committee means the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFRST) and planning for the next one.  TESS is not “large,” but is the next mission that NASA plans to launch to search for planets around other stars (exoplanets), a particular interest of full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX).  JWST and WFIRST also have exoplanet hunting among their tasks.  Both have recently encountered problems.  JWST’s launch has been delayed from October 2018 to sometime in the late March to late June 2019 time period.  WFIRST is still in the formulation stage, but already must be descoped because of cost growth.  The “planning” presumably is about the four concepts NASA is proposing for the next astrophysics Decadal Survey, which should commence in 2020.  The House SS&T committee held a hearing on them last year, too.

Among the witnesses are GAO’s Christina Chaplain and retired NASA and industry executive Tom Young.  Young is often called upon to lead studies to determine why space programs go awry.  He and Chaplain presumably will talk about the challenges facing JWST and WFIRST. Young was a member of the National Academies’ 2010 Decadal Survey committee that recommended WFIRST, as well as two subsequent Academies committees in 2014 and 2016 that reviewed the program and warned about the increased risks and costs associated with adding a coronagraph as NASA wants to do.  He also is a member of the Academies’ standing Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA) and asked probing questions about the JWST delay at CAA’s last meeting.  The three other witnesses are Thomas Zurbuchen, head of science at NASA; Matt Mountain, president of the Association of Universities in Research for Astronomy (AURA), which manages the Space Telescope Science Institute, which does or will operate the Hubble Space Telescope and JWST, and share in operations of WFIRST; and Chris McKee, appearing on behalf of the National Academies.  McKee co-chaired the 2000 Decadal Survey on astronomy and astrophysics and is currently a member of CAA.  The hearing is at 2:00 pm ET and will be webcast.

On Thursday, SASC will hold yet another hearing on DOD acquisition reform.  The three service secretaries (Army, Navy, Air Force) and the current Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics (USD/ATL), Ellen Lord, will testify.  In the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act (Sec. 901), Congress directed DOD to split the USD/ATL job into two by February 1, 2018.  Lord is expected to continue as the new Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment (USD/A&S).  President Trump has nominated former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin to be the new Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USD/R&E).  His confirmation hearing has not been held yet.

On Friday, SpaceX will launch its next cargo mission to the International Space Station (ISS).  This is the company’s 13th such mission for NASA, but is the first time it will use a “flight proven” — reused — Falcon 9 first stage.  SpaceX recovers most of its Falcon 9 first stages for refurbishment and reuse, convinced that reusability will lead to lower costs (although that was not proven by the world’s first reusable launch vehicle, NASA’s space shuttle).  Three other SpaceX launches for other customers have reused the first stages and all were successful.  This is also the first launch from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (CCAFS), adjacent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC), since an accident on September 1, 2016 that severely damaged the pad, which SpaceX leases from the Air Force.  SpaceX has been using KSC’s Launch Complex 39-A (LC 39-A), which it leases from NASA, for these launches in the interim.  SpaceX plans to use LC 39-A not only for Falcon 9, but the Falcon Heavy (FH) now in development.  SpaceX says the first FH launch will be next month.

Many other interesting events are on tap this week in Washington and elsewhere, too many to mention here (but see the list below).  Among them are the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition (SpaceCom) in Houston beginning Tuesday; an ESA workshop in the Netherlands on research that could be conducted on NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway, also starting Tuesday; the release by the Aerospace Corporation and the Mitchell Institute of a new report on “Leading in a Rapidly Changing World” on Tuesday morning; a seminar by the Secure World Foundation and the South Big Data Innovation Hub on opportunities and challenges for citizen science for earth observations on Wednesday; and a meeting of the full NASA Advisory Council on Thursday afternoon and Friday morning.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below.  Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Calendar.

Monday-Thursday, December 4-7

Tuesday, December 5

Tuesday-Wednesday, December 5-6

Tuesday-Thursday, December 5-7

Wednesday, December 6

Thursday, December 7

Thursday-Friday, December 78

Friday, December 8

  • SpX-13 Launch, Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL, 1:20 pm ET (post-launch press conference 3:00 pm ET)  Watch on NASA TV

Saturday, December 9

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