What’s Happening in Space Policy September 24-30, 2023

What’s Happening in Space Policy September 24-30, 2023

Here is SpacePolicyOnline.com’s list of space policy events for the week of September 24-30, 2023 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate will be in session beginning Tuesday as the clock ticks down to the end of FY2023.

During the Week

As we post this (Sunday), the sample return capsule from NASA’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft is hurtling through space to enter Earth’s atmosphere and land at the Air Force Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR). Touchdown is scheduled for 10:55 am ET this morning  after a 2.5 year journey from the asteroid Bennu where it collected about 250 grams (8.8 ounces) of pristine material that dates back to the formation of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago.

We’ll have more on that later today, but from a schedule standpoint, NASA will provide live coverage of the landing beginning at 10:00 am ET this morning and a news conference at 5:00 pm ET. The capsule will be flown to the astromaterials curation facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center where the lid will be removed on Monday or Tuesday. It will take a couple of weeks for them to extract every single particle. Another press conference is scheduled for October 11 to unveil the first Bennu sample.

That’s an uplifting start to what otherwise could be a gloomy week as Congress stares down a government shutdown next Sunday.

The House and Senate will not meet tomorrow (Monday) in observance of Yom Kippur, giving them only 5 days to pass a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government operating after 12:01 am Sunday morning, October 1, when FY2024 begins. No FY2024 appropriations bills have cleared Congress yet.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) will try again to get one or more appropriations bills passed this week. A Continuing Resolution is not on the schedule yet, but that could change.

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s (R-CA) efforts to make progress either on a CR or the FY2024 DOD appropriations bill were repeatedly thwarted by members of his own party last week. Three times, a small group of ultra conservative House Freedom Caucus members voted down the Rules that have to pass before the bills themselves can be considered by the full House. All Democrats oppose the bills because they contain social policy “poison pills” like anti-abortion and anti-diversity language and funding levels they consider too low. With the party margin so narrow (221 Republicans, 212 Democrats, 2 vacancies), it takes only 5 Republicans to join them in voting no to kill legislation. Enough of the 20 or so Freedom Caucus members — who publicly assert they see no problem in shutting down the government — voted no even though at one point McCarthy thought he had a deal on the DOD bill at least. But it was not to be.

House and Senate Democrats and Senate Republicans do not want a shutdown, and do want to fund the government for FY2024 at the levels agreed to by McCarthy and President Biden in the Fiscal Responsibility Act. That basically keeps nondefense (NASA, NOAA, NSF, Department of Commerce, FAA etc) spending at FY2023 levels, while defense grows a bit. The Senate marked up all its appropriations bills that way.

The House Appropriations Committee used lower numbers for nondefense, but the Freedom Caucus wants even deeper cuts as passed by the House in the Limit, Save, Grow Act. That cuts nondefense back to FY2022 levels, not FY2023. Some also want to eliminate funding for Ukraine from the DOD bill.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) may try to pass a CR and send it to the House in an effort to  prevent a government shutdown , but whether it could pass the House is a huge question mark.

McCarthy has four appropriations bills on the schedule for floor consideration this week:  another try at DOD, Homeland Security, State/Foreign Ops, and Agriculture. The Rules Committee approved them yesterday in a single Rule after cutting more money from what  appropriators allowed for agriculture and foreign aid. (As a reminder, House Appropriations has not finished marking up the Commerce-Justice-Science bill so we still don’t know what they have in mind for NASA and NOAA.) None of the House bills would pass the Democratic-controlled Senate nor be signed by the President as is. They were approved by the Appropriations Committee on strict party-line votes. Even if they pass the House, it doesn’t help with the imminent shutdown quandary.

What’s needed is a CR, which is not on the House schedule yet. The one McCarthy brought up last week — that was blocked by the Freedom Caucus — would have lasted a month during which defense spending would be frozen and nondefense cut by 8 percent. Another bill that would never pass the Senate or be signed into law.

McCarthy himself has signalled he doesn’t want a shutdown so there is a ray of hope he’ll decide to work with House Democrats to pass a clean CR that does nothing except keep the government funded at its current level for days, weeks or months. That likely would endanger his Speakership, however. Opposition to his election as Speaker by Freedom Caucus members in January led to the record 15 votes it took for him to win. One of the concessions he had to make was agreeing to retain a provision that allows a single Republican to call for his ouster (a “motion to vacate the chair”) and demand a new vote. He wanted to increase the threshold to at least five. That’s the Damoclean sword the Freedom Caucus has been dangling over his head ever since, giving them significant power despite their small number.

Appropriations chaos notwithstanding, McCarthy is still keeping his constituents in mind. The district he represents includes Mojave Air and Space Port that has a long history in commercial human spaceflight. The restriction on the FAA promulgating new commercial human spaceflight regulations also expires on September 30. Late last week McCarthy introduced the grandly-named two-sentence “Space Transformation and Reliability Act” or STAR Act that simply extends the deadline for another 8 years to 2031. Whether that can be enacted by Sunday is an open question, but at least it’s a start.

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall will appear at a HASC hearing on Thursday to discuss the process for the decision to keep U.S. Space Command HQ in Colorado. USSPACECOM Commander Gen. James Dickinson and USSF CSO Gen. B. Chance Saltzman will also testify.

Also on Capitol Hill this week, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) will continue his campaign against President Biden’s decision to keep U.S. Space Command headquartered in Colorado instead of moving it to Alabama as former President Trump promised. On Thursday, Rogers will hold a hearing with Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall, U.S. Space Command Commander Gen. James A. Dickinson, and U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations Gen. B. Chance Saltzman to discuss “irregularities” in the basing process. Word has it that after 2.5 years of consideration, Kendall wanted it to go to Alabama and Dickinson wanted to keep it in Colorado for operational readiness reasons so Biden had to make the decision and sided with Dickinson. (The Space Force is headquartered at the Pentagon so really isn’t part of this dispute.) This seemingly endless spat is not partisan, but a matter of state and local politics that pits the Colorado and Alabama delegations against each other.

Off the Hill, apart from OSIRIS-REx’s return, the BIG EVENT is the Soyuz MS-23 crew coming home after 371 days in space. NASA’s Frank Rubio and Roscosmos’s Sergey Prokopyev and Dmitri Petelin had to stay an extra 6 months because the Soyuz MS-22 spacecraft that delivered them to ISS last year leaked all its coolant into space and wasn’t safe to take them back to Earth. Russia only builds two Soyuzes a year, so the next one, Soyuz MS-23, was launched empty instead of carrying the replacement crew: Roscosmos’s Oleg Kononenko and Nikolai Chub and NASA’s Loral O’Hara. They had to wait until now to launch while Rubio, Prokopyev and Rubio remained on ISS. The Kononenko crew arrived on Soyuz MS-24 a week ago, so Rubio and his crewmates can finally come home on Wednesday. NASA TV will cover hatch closing at 12:20 am ET, undocking at 3:55 am ET and landing in Kazakhstan at 7:17 am ET.

The Soyuz MS-22/MS-23 crew L-R: Dmitri Petelin (Roscosmos), Sergey Prokopyev (Roscosmos), Frank Rubio (NASA).  Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Rubio is the first American to reach the 365-day mark, though three came close. Four Russians reached that milestone many years ago during visits to Russia’s Mir space station. Rubio spoke frankly about what it’s like to remain in space that long unexpectedly. Most of the others who have stayed in space close to a  year or more knew in advance they would or might be there that long. It’s different when it’s a surprise, especially for someone like Rubio who has four relatively young  children. He said he did his best to remain positive throughout the mission, but is looking forward to hugging his wife and kids and enjoying the peace and quiet of his back yard instead of the unrelenting hum of fans and other machinery on the ISS.

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, September 24

Monday, September 25

Monday-Friday, September 25-29

Tuesday, September 26

Wednesday, September 27

Thursday, September 28

Thursday-Friday, September 28-29

Friday, September 29

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