EXCLUSIVE: House bill on space traffic drops next week
With help from Gregory Hellman and Adrienne Hurst
WHITE HOUSE REORGANIZATION TARGETS NASA. The proposed government overhaul unveiled by the White House on Thursday orders NASA to decide whether at least one of its nine space centers should be converted to — or host — a federally funded research and development center in an effort to make the space agency a more agile partner for an expanding space industry.
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NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is already operated by the California Institute of Technology as a federally funded R&D center, but the agency’s other nine centers are fully owned and operated by the space agency. Converting another “may offer a powerful approach to enable NASA to better align its workforce skill sets with agency priorities, while simultaneously engendering an entrepreneurial spirit that better allows NASA to infuse talent from industry and commercial partners,” the plan says.
The idea was first raised in 2004 by the President’s Commission on Implementation of United States Space Exploration, but Trump’s aggressive push to tap into the commercial sector to reach the moon and Mars prompted officials to give the proposal another look.
TODAY: TRUMP’S ‘SPACE FORCE’ FACES SCRUTINY ON CAPITOL HILL. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and U.S. Strategic Command chief Air Force Gen. John Hyten will testify this morning before a joint hearing of the House Armed Services’ Strategic Forces Subcommittee and the Science, Space and Technology’ Committee’s space panel. Get a head start with the opening statements from Bridenstine and Hyten, who plans to voice fresh warnings about China’s and Russia’s ability to threaten American space assets.
The trio is expected to face tough questions about the president’s surprise announcement this week that he’s ordering the Pentagon to stand up a separate Space Force as the sixth branch of the military.
Many unknowns remain about the proposal that Trump revealed as he chaired a meeting of the National Space Council — especially whether there’s enough support in Congress, which will have the ultimate say, to split the space mission off from the Air Force.
“We still don’t know what a Space Force would do, who is going to be in it, or how much is it going to cost,” Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a senior Armed Services Committee member who counts himself among the skeptics, tells us. Others are also wary that the money exists for a separate force on par with the other branches.
But congressional boosters are already eyeing how to make Trump’s vision reality. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) says he plans to include a provision in defense legislation next year “to set us on a path toward a space force,” regardless of the findings of two Pentagon studies on the issue underway — one to recommend organizational changes and another to develop a plan for setting up a new space branch.
“That report’s going to come back and say we need a space force,” Rogers tells us of the first report, which is expected to be finished by the end of the year. “So, you will see us … start preparing for next year’s [National Defense Authorization Act], where we will then implement statutory changes to set us on a path towards Space Force.”
Turner isn’t so sure. “After we get the report that we required as a legislative body and the president signed off on, then this issue can be appropriately evaluated for what’s best for national security,” he said.
The Air Force is saluting, though. The service strongly opposed the creation of a military space department when lawmakers first floated the idea last year, but now seems resigned to its fate. “The President’s guidance is clear and we look forward to working with Department of Defense leaders, Congress, and our national security partners to move forward on this planning effort,” the service said in a statement. Rogers, too, said he expects it to drop its previous resistance. “I don’t think the Air Force is going to be meddling in the legislative arena trying to stop it, because we know President Trump doesn’t mind firing people when they don’t do their job.”
The president’s announcement also generated some out-of-this world reaction on social media. Our favorite was this one.
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T MINUS FIVE DAYS! Join POLITICO for a keynote interview with NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. Sworn in as the 13th NASA administrator on April 23, Bridenstine is leading efforts to reignite the space program and ensure American leadership in space. The conversation will explore NASA’s priorities for human spaceflight, the role of an accelerating private space economy and the U.S. role in space governance. The event will take place Wednesday, June 27 at The Willard. Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. RSVP here.
** A message from The Boeing Company: Experiments aboard the International Space Station will enable humanity to venture to the lunar surface. To survive. To thrive. These experiments uncover solutions to improve life on Earth, too—from recycling to medicine. That’s why Boeing continues to maintain the space station it helped build. Discover more at boeing.com/ISS and @BoeingSpace. **
EXCLUSIVE: NEW LEGISLATION ON SPACE TRAFFIC TO DROP NEXT WEEK. Another primary topic of today’s hearing will be how the administration intends to carry out Trump’s new presidential directive to divvy up the critical task of tracking the growing congestion of satellites and other space objects in low Earth orbit.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) plans to introduce the “American Space Situational Awareness and Facilitation of Entity Management Act,” (or the American Space SAFE Management Act) directing the secretary of commerce to stand up a civil space situational awareness program and brief Congress every quarter on the program.
The draft bill, which a committee aide says will be introduced next week, also directs NASA to draw up a plan for national civil space situational awareness and space traffic coordination to improve coordination among federal agencies; identify where the government should be focusing its research and development; and decide how to ensure federal research is not competing with private investments. It also calls on NASA to establish a Center for Civil Space Situational Awareness Science and Technology Excellence at a U.S. university with funding of at least $10 million per year from fiscal 2019 to 2023.
SPACE-OFF FOR HOUSE AND SENATE DEFENSE NEGOTIATORS: The Senate this week passed its version of the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, setting up a conference committee with House negotiators next week that will include reconciling a series of space-related proposals.
The House bill makes much more drastic changes, including setting up a new numbered Air Force for space, a subordinate unified Space Command under U.S. Strategic Command and a separate acquisition pipeline for space — all not contained in the Senate version. The chamber also wants a number of studies on the space budget and debris, along with a study on national security vulnerabilities of current launch sites and recommendations for future launch sites. The Senate’s plan would require the defense secretary to deliver a report on Defense Department research taking place on the International Space Station.
One area of agreement is on reusable launch vehicles. Both bills order the secretary of defense to consider reusable launch vehicles in future competitions and justify it to Congress if he plans to put out a solicitation where reusable launch vehicles are not eligible.
‘ACQUISITION IS JUST SO SLOW.’ Would a Space Force change anything? Not much if it continues to follow the Pentagon’s traditional approach to acquisition, warns Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. He is also a member of the National Space Council’s User Advisory Group, which met for the first time this week.
“Everyone on the Users’ Advisory Group .. .agrees the acquisition system, primarily with the Air Force, is not optimal,” Stallmer tell us. “There is so much advancement, innovation, privately developed technologies the Air Force could adopt immediately but the acquisition is just so slow.”
The Pentagon acknowledges the challenges. A spokesman said it is “the biggest challenge we face” when the department released an interim report on space organization in March. The Air Force has started to make some improvements, including a planned overhaul of its Space and Missile Systems Center this fall to break down walls between organizations and improve agility, but there is widespread agreement that more needs to change.
“There’s always concern of bureaucracy any time you set up a new agency,” Stallmer adds. “But I think this administration has been committed to reducing bureaucracy and reducing regulatory hurdles. I think the intent is to be more efficient with the appropriated dollars that the Space Force gets.”
The burgeoning commercial space sector can help, Stallmer contends, noting that his member companies will have recommendations to avoid creating more needless bureaucracy.
Stallmer also talked about why he believes the membership of the Users’ Advisory Group is the right mix (not everyone agrees) and his take on Bridenstine’s first few months on the job. Read the interview here.
MILESTONE: SpaceX on Thursday won its first contract under the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program — a development the company sees as “a very big deal,” in the words of one exec. Under the $130 million contract, the company will launch the Air Force Space Command-52 satellite on a Falcon Heavy rocket. It is a vindication of sorts: SpaceX sued the Air Force for the opportunity to compete in the lucrative EELV program, which procures space launch services for the military.
MAKING MOVES: Teri Spoutz is set to be the new chief of government relations at The Aerospace Corp., the federally funded research and development center that serves as a key space adviser to the government and technology incubator. Spoutz previously worked for the Senate’s Defense Appropriations Subcommittee and directed the Air Force Budget Investment Office.
TOP DOC: ASTEROID DEFENSE. NASA and other government agencies need to “improve detection, research, mission planning, emergency preparedness and response, and domestic and international engagement” to deal with the threat of asteroids that could strike the Earth, according to a new White House plan issued this week.
The National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Plan sets five goals: to better track so-called Near-Earth Objects; improve modeling; develop new technology to deflect or destroy them; increase international cooperation; and exercise response plans.