What’s Happening in Space Policy November 29-December 5, 2020

What’s Happening in Space Policy November 29-December 5, 2020

Here is SpacePolicyOnline.com’s list of space policy events for the week of November 29-December 5, 2020 and any insight we can offer about them.  The Senate is in session all week; the House meets Monday in pro forma session and for legislative business Wednesday-Friday.

During the Week

Wow, what a week we have coming up!

It starts and ends with sample return missions in the spotlight.

UPDATE, SUNDAY AFTERNOON:  China’s CGTN says the landing will be “in three days,” not today. We’ll post any further updates to our Calendar entry for this event.   We previously wrote — Today (Sunday), China’s Chang’e-5 spacecraft is expected to land on the Moon to collect 2 kilograms of samples for return to Earth in mid-December. China has not publicly released a timeline for Chang’e-5 events, but the spacecraft entered lunar orbit yesterday (Saturday) and China space watcher @CosmicPenguin obtained information that leads him to conclude the landing in the Ocean of Storms could be around 20:30 UTC (15:30 or 3:30 pm EST) today.

At the end of the week (Saturday, Eastern Standard Time; Sunday, Australian Central Daylight Time), Japan’s Hayabusa2 return capsule will land in Woomera, Australia, delivering its harvest of samples from the asteroid Ryugu. Launched in 2014, Hayabusa2 arrived at Ryugu in 2018 and over the course of the next year and a half landed on Ryugu twice to gather samples as well as dropping off three tiny landers/rovers to explore the surface. It headed back to Earth one year ago.  It’s very close now. The capsule will return to Earth while the main spacecraft keeps speeding by. JAXA will not know how much material is inside the capsule until they open it. You can follow the countdown to landing live on JAXA’s website and they have an app, too.  We hope there will be live coverage of the landing, but haven’t seen any announcement yet. We’ll add anything we hear about to our Calendar entry, so keep checking back.

In between those events, SpaceX plans the biggest “hop” ever of a Starship prototype. The highest one so far is 150 meters using a prototype powered by a single Raptor engine. Now it will try with a 3-engine prototype, Serial Number 8 (SN8), from its testing site in Boca Chica, TX, aiming for an altitude of 15 kilometers and then a return to the landing pad. To be sure, Blue Origin’s New Shepard has made that up-and-down trip repeatedly to altitudes above 100 kilometers, but SpaceX enthusiasts are excited because the test is part of the path to Elon Musk’s rocket/spacecraft combo designed to take people and cargo to the Moon and Mars. The first stage of the rocket, Super Heavy, hasn’t flown yet. Starship is the second stage of the rocket as well as crew quarters or cargo module. Musk optimistically hopes the first Starship/Super Heavy launch to orbit will take place next year (he said that last year, too).

Still, SpaceX is making progress with these tests. He did not say which day this one will take place (which is why we don’t list it on our Calendar yet). He gives it only a 1/3 chance of success, but isn’t very concerned because he has two more prototypes, SN9 and SN10, ready to go. [UPDATE, Sunday afternoonMusk tweeted today that the test will take place “no earlier than Wednesday.”]

Separately, on Saturday (just before Hayabusa2’s return capsule lands in Woomera), SpaceX will launch the first of its new generation Cargo Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station (ISS). It’s the company’s 21st cargo mission to ISS, SpX-21, but the first of this new version, Cargo Dragon 2, derived from the Crew Dragon spacecraft. It can dock rather than berth (i.e. it no longer must be grabbed by the crew-operated Canadarm2 and installed onto a port; it can dock by itself). It’s the first time two SpaceX vehicles will be at the ISS simultaneously. The first operational Crew Dragon, Resilience, is already there. It delivered the four Crew-1 astronauts two weeks ago.  This mission also gets a checkmark for another first. It is delivering the first commercially-funded space station airlock, the Bishop Airlock, built by Nanoracks.

All that excitement may steal some of the thunder from the many other happenings this week in Congress and in advisory committee meetings, webinars, the first week of the AGU conference, and many more.

Let’s start on Capitol Hill. First and foremost, former NASA astronaut Mark Kelly will be sworn in as the new Senator from Arizona this week. He is filling the unexpired term of the late Sen. John McCain, so does not have to wait until January to take his seat. We haven’t heard the details of exactly when he’ll take his oath of office, but it’s expected early in the week. He defeated Martha McSally, who had been appointed by the Governor of Arizona to serve these past two years until an election could be held. She gave her farewell speech on the Senate floor last week. Kelly will have to run for reelection in 2022 if he wants to keep the job.  In case there’s anyone who doesn’t know, Kelly is married to former Congresswoman Gabby Giffords who continues to recover from an assassination attempt in 2011 that killed six others and wounded 13. And Mark is the identical twin brother of “Year-in-Space” NASA astronaut Scott Kelly who holds the U.S. record for continuous time in space (340 days).  Mark himself flew four space shuttle missions, two as pilot, two as commander. Once he is sworn in, the Senate will have 52 Republicans and 48 Democrats (including two Independents who usually vote with the Democrats), instead of 53-47.

Though a new administration will be taking office on January 20, the Senate is still working to confirm Trump nominees who will have to hand in their resignations effective that day. (The incoming President does not have to accept all the resignations, but they must be offered.)  Among them is Greg Autry’s nomination to be NASA’s Chief Financial Officer. On Wednesday, the Senate Commerce Committee will meet to consider his nomination and two others for unrelated positions. His part of the nomination hearing two weeks ago was not controversial (most of the questioning was over Nathan Simington’s nomination to the FCC, which the committee will also mark up on Wednesday), but Democrats remain angry over Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s decision to confirm Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett just before the election so anything can happen.

The three big ticket items on the congressional schedule in this lame duck session are another COVID relief bill, finalizing the FY2021 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), and getting the 12 FY2021 appropriations bills passed to avoid a government shutdown. The existing Continuing Resolution (CR) expires on December 11.

The appropriations bills seem to be making good progress, though we wouldn’t bet on them being done by December 11.  Another CR for a few days or weeks seems all but inevitable.

The other two, not so much. Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on how much more money to spend on COVID relief (Democrats want another big package, $2.2 trillion; Republicans much less, $500 billion). For the NDAA, large majorities of Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate voted to require DOD to rename military bases that honor Confederates, but President Trump said he will veto any bill that includes such a provision. The bill will die if it doesn’t get enacted by the end of the 116th Congress (noon, January 3). The House and Senate Armed Services Committees are very proud that, despite everything over all these decades, Congress has passed an NDAA every year since the first in 1961. They’ll be trying hard to find a compromise, but if worse comes to worse, the bill could be quickly reintroduced in the 117th Congress and presented to incoming President Biden for signature after he is inaugurated on January 20.

We aren’t hearing much about either the NASA Authorization bill or the SPACE Act that just cleared the Senate Commerce Committee (significantly changed from when it was introduced), but in the waning days of a Congress these types of bills can often just suddenly appear on the House or Senate schedule if the two parties and the two chambers reach agreement behind the scenes. Keep an eye out!

Elsewhere, the always-massive AGU Fall Meeting seems even more so this year spread out over three weeks as a virtual event. Most of the sessions still take place December 7-11, the original dates for the in-person meeting, but AGU added more before and after. It is far too much to summarize here, but suffice it to say that AGU is one of the can’t-miss conferences every year for anyone who wants to learn the latest about what’s going on in Earth and space science.

Also virtual this year is the 6th Annual West Coast Aerospace Forum sponsored by the Aerospace Corporation, MITRE, CSIS, the Mitchell Institute, and RAND Project Air Force.  Taking place over three days (Tuesday-Thursday), it has a very impressive array of speakers on topics including “The Future Shape of Strategy, World Order and Competition,” “The Defense Budget Outlook,” and “The Changing National Security Space Landscape.”

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.

Sunday, November 29

Monday, November 30

Monday-Tuesday, November 30-December 1

Tuesday, December 1

Tuesday-Wednesday, December 1-2

Tuesday-Thursday, December 1-3

Tuesday-Friday, December 1-4

Wednesday, December 2

Wednesday-Thursday, December 2-3

Thursday, December 3

Friday, December 4

Saturday, December 5

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