What’s Happening in Space Policy October 8-14, 2023

What’s Happening in Space Policy October 8-14, 2023

Here is SpacePolicyOnline.com’s list of space policy events for the week of October 8-14, 2023 and any insight we can offer about them. The Senate is in recess except for pro forma sessions. The House schedule is uncertain.

During the Week

Tomorrow (Monday) is a federal holiday officially called Columbus Day to commemorate Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas (on an island that is now part of the Bahamas) on October 12, 1492, though others now refer to it as Indigenous Peoples’ Day to honor the original inhabitants of these lands.

Quite a few NASA workers will be hard at work anyway, though, as they get ready to reveal the first samples returned from asteroid Bennu by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft on Wednesday, launch the next asteroid mission, Psyche, on Thursday, and conduct a spacewalk at the International Space Station also on Thursday.

OSIRIS REx Asteroid Sample Return Capsule lid is opened at JSC’s Astromaterials Curation Facility, September 26, 2023. NASA will  share more details at two events on Wednesday. Photo credit: Robert Markowitz

More on those and a lot of other really interesting events shortly, but from a space policy perspective perhaps the most important action this week is House Republicans deciding who should be the next Speaker. Their ouster of their own leader, Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), last Tuesday caught almost everyone by surprise and could have ramifications for continued FY2024 government funding. The relief felt just one week ago when Congress passed a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open through November 17 was short lived since another CR will be needed at that time and whether a new Speaker will be willing to work with Democrats to get one passed as McCarthy did remains to be seen.

Steve Scalise (R-LA) is one of two announced candidates to be the new Speaker of the House. He was Majority Leader under McCarthy.

It was that bipartisanship that angered the ultra-conservative Republicans in the House Freedom Caucus (HFC) who drove McCarthy out. They object to Republicans and Democrats working together and are intent on cutting nondefense spending (e.g. NASA) more deeply than the House Appropriations Committee, which already cut it more than what Congress approved in the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA). McCarthy and President Biden negotiated the FRA which essentially keeps total FY2024 discretionary spending at FY2023 levels instead of what Biden requested for FY2024. The HFC wants to cut nondefense back to FY2022 levels.

The approximately 20-member HFC is small, but has outsized influence because Republicans control the chamber by such a narrow margin (221 Republicans to 212 Democrats, with 2 vacancies). On Tuesday, 210 of the 218 Republicans who voted wanted McCarthy to continue as Speaker (a “nay” vote was in favor of McCarthy staying), but it wasn’t enough for him to keep the job because eight HFC members joined 208 Democrats in voting against him. Historically each party chooses its own party leader so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that no Democrats voted for a Republican Speaker of the House even though some Republicans are blaming Democrats for not coming to McCarthy’s aid.

McCarthy cut a lot of deals with HFC hardliners to get the job in January including putting several of them on the House Rules Committee which has enabled them to insist on deeper funding cuts than what came out of the House Appropriations Committee. It’s not clear if his successor will feel bound by them. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), a moderate who chairs the Rules Committee, told Politico he doesn’t think so and the HFC no longer will be able to dictate those deep funding cuts. That could be a positive development for NASA and other nondefense agencies, but who knows what the new Speaker will want to do?

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), a co-founder of the House Freedom Caucus, is the other announced candidate for Speaker of the House. He chairs the House Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA), who was Majority Leader (second in command) under McCarthy, and Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, have declared their candidacies. Scalise has several years of experience in House leadership roles, but may be best known to the public as a survivor of the 2017 shooting attack on Members of Congress practicing for the annual Congressional Baseball Game. He recovered, but now is undergoing treatment for multiple myeloma, a form of blood cancer. He assures supporters he’s healthy enough to serve in this demanding role. Jordan, a co-founder of the HFC, may be best known for his fiery defense of former President Trump, who has endorsed him for Speaker. Jordan has less experience in House leadership, but currently chairs the House Judiciary Committee and supported McCarthy in recent months. Both Scalise and Jordan voted to keep McCarthy as Speaker.

Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC) is the Speaker Pro Tempore of the House, but has very limited authority.

The House Republican Conference is currently scheduled to meet on Wednesday to try and agree on who to put forward. A majority vote is required. Whether either of them can meet that threshold or if another candidate steps forward is uncertain. Whoever gets the job not only runs the House, but is second in line to the Presidency after the Vice President.

The House cannot conduct any legislative business until a new Speaker holds the gavel. The Speaker pro Tempore, Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-NC), has very limited authority, basically just to oversee the election of a new Speaker.

Ironically, the House was only in session last week because McCarthy acceded to HFC demands that they cancel a scheduled recess in order to work on appropriations bills. They were supposed to have completed Energy-Water and Legislative Branch last week. Instead, nothing got done and the clock is ticking down to November 17. The House has passed four of the 12 FY2024 appropriations bills (MilCon-VA, State-Foreign Ops, DOD, Homeland Security) on essentially party-line votes and defeated one (Agriculture). Most Democrats oppose the bills because the funding levels for nondefense are far lower than what Republicans agreed to in the FRA and contain social policy provisions about abortion, LGBTQ and diversity rights that are anathema to Democrats.

Sen. Laphonza Butler (D-CA) was sworn in on October 3 to succeed the late Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

Over in the Senate, the Senate Appropriations Committee cleared all 12 bills on a bipartisan basis observing the funding levels in the FRA and without the social policy “poison pills” in the House versions. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) agreed to bundle three of them together for passage several weeks ago, but Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) objected because he wants each bill considered separately even though that requires much more time. It only takes one Senator to slow things down in the Senate and no more progress has been made since. The Senate is on a long-scheduled week-long break. We’ll see what the plan is once they return. The Senate is back to its full complement of 100 Senators with the appointment of Laphonza Butler by California Governor Gavin Newsom to replace Sen. Dianne Feinstein who died on September 29.

Once the House and Senate pass their bills, they’ll have to negotiate final versions, which will be quite a challenge. Realistically there’s zero chance they can do that by November 17 and some wonder if it can be finished by the end of the year. Remember that the FRA has a provision that if all 12 appropriations bills are not enacted by January 1, 2024, an automatic one percent across-the-board cut goes into effect for defense and nondefense. Congress can always pass another law extending the deadline or voiding the provision entirely, but whether that’s feasible is tough to forecast.

Apart from the drama on Capitol Hill, it’s a busy week with a lot of really interesting space events.

On Wednesday at JSC’s Astromaterials Acquisition and Curation Office, NASA will unveil the first samples of asteroid Bennu that were brought back to Earth by the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft. Scientists have been very carefully opening the capsule and finding even more material than they expected. NASA will hold a press conference Wednesday morning with NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and other NASA officials as well as OSIRIS-REx Principal Investigator Dante Lauretta from the University of Arizona. A media telecon will follow in the afternoon with members of the science team.

In-between those two media events, NASA will hold a pre-launch briefing for the launch of the next asteroid mission, Psyche, which will lift off Thursday morning. The Psyche spacecraft is headed to a metal-rich asteroid by that name in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It will not bring anything back to Earth like OSIRIS-REx, but study Psyche in detail from orbit. Asteroids are of great scientific interest because they hold clues to how the solar system formed, and, perhaps, life. There’s a Psyche “mission and science” briefing on Tuesday as well.

Psyche’s launch is a year late because in June 2022 the project team concluded they didn’t have enough time to test the software. The asteroid and Earth are only aligned properly once a year so when they missed the 2022 launch window, it meant waiting until now. The launch window is open until October 25. Psyche was supposed to launch on October 5, but another last minute problem cropped up with the spacecraft’s thrusters. They think they found an easy fix to that, so are proceeding on Thursday.

Psyche’s launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy is at 10:16 am ET, just minutes after two astronauts exit the International Space Station for a spacewalk. NASA’s Loral O’Hara and ESA’s Andreas Mogenson will step outside at 10:00 am ET. NASA TV will cover the spacewalk beginning at 8:30 am ET on the public channel, while Psyche launch coverage starts at 9:30 am ET on the “NASA TV UHD channel, and streamed to NASA’s flagship accounts on YouTube, Twitch, X, Daily Motion as well as the NASA app.”

The fall meeting of NASA’s Lunar Science Innovation Consortium will take place Tuesday and Wednesday in Pittsburgh PA, home to Astrobotic, one of the companies that has Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) contracts with NASA. Its first lander, Peregrine, is ready to go as soon as the United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan rocket is certified for launch. Two Democratic Pennsylvania Representatives are among the LSIC speakers: Rep. Summer Lee and Rep. Matt Cartwright. Lee is on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  Cartwright is the top Democrat on the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee that funds NASA (he chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress).

LSIC’s fall meeting is in Pittsburgh, home to Astrobotic, on Tuesday and Wednesday and will be livestreamed. Astrobotic’s Peregrine lunar lander. Credit: Astrobotic.

On the national security space front, the Atlantic Council has two interesting events this week. On Tuesday, Frank Kendall, Secretary of the Air Force, will discuss modernizing the air and space forces with NBC News reporter Courtney Cube. On Thursday, a panel will talk about “Applying an Irregular Warfare Lens to Space” featuring John Klein’s recent book “Fight for the Final Frontier: Irregular Warfare in Space.” Klein, from George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, will be joined by Dean Cheng from the Potomac Institute for Space Studies, Col. El Gardner from the U.S. Space Force, Franco Ongaro from Italy’s Leonardo, and Audrey Schaffer, now with Slingshot Aerospace (until recently director of space policy for the White House National Security Council). Breaking Defense’s Theresa Hitchens is the moderator.

Frank Rubio aboard the ISS in July 2023. He’s back on Earth now and will participate in a news conference on Friday to talk about his record-breaking 371-day mission.

Lots of other great events, but we will mention just one more. On Friday, NASA’s Frank Rubio will hold a news conference to talk about his 371 days on ISS, a record for continuous time in space by an American astronaut. The duration of his mission was a surprise. He was supposed to return after six months but the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft that took him and two Russian colleagues to the ISS lost all its coolant and had to be replaced. That meant Soyuz MS-23, which was to bring the next crew, was launched empty instead and that crew had to wait until last month. Rubio already shared some of the challenges he encountered, but it will be interesting to hear his perspective now that he’s finally back home.

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 or changes to these.

Sunday, October 8

Sunday-Tuesday, October 8-10 (continued from October 4)

Monday, October 9

Tuesday, October 10

Tuesday-Wednesday, October 10-11

Tuesday-Thursday, October 10-12

Wednesday, October 11

Wednesday-Thursday, October 11-12

Wednesday-Friday, October 11-13

Thursday, October 12

Thursday-Friday, October 12-13

Friday, October 13

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