Thursday, November 19, 2015

Congress Gets It Right

A July 2015 panel at the ISS R&D conference titled, “Viewpoints: Leveraging ISS to Enable LEO Commercialization.” Video source: ISSCASIS YouTube channel.

Despite its knack for fouling nearly every policy issue it touches, for once Congress got it right.

Both houses have approved the final version of H.R. 2262, titled the “U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act.”

Legislation about commercial space has been passed many times over the decades. The Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984, for example, was passed “to encourage the United States private sector to provide launch vehicles and associated launch services by simplifying and expediting the issuance and transfer of commercial launch licenses and by facilitating and encouraging the utilization of Government-developed space technology.” The Commercial Space Act of 1998 established that “a priority goal of constructing the International Space Station is the economic development of Earth orbital space” by commercializing use of the International Space Station. Other commercial space language finds it way into various legislation, such as the authorization and appropriations bills that govern NASA's activities.

The “NewSpace” era of commercial space enterprise has finally arrived. Facing a choice between squashing this nascent industry or nurturing it, Congress chose the latter.

Technically speaking, H.R. 2262 amends several provisions in Title 51 of the U.S. Code, National and Commercial Space Programs. This is where NASA's enabling legislation resides.

Most of the professional space journalism sites have delved into the details of the act, such as these reports from Space News, Space Policy Online and Florida Today.

Not receiving much attention is Section 117, which among its provisions replaces the current §70102 that defines Space Shuttle use policy. The new §70102 defines Space Launch System use policy.

When Congress ordered NASA in 2010 create SLS, they did not bother to tell NASA what to do with it, other than protect Shuttle-era contractor jobs. That's why critics labelled it the Senate Launch System. SLS is running two years behind its Congressional mandate to launch its first uncrewed test flight.

H.R. 2262 finally makes a stab at narrowing its uses, if not defining them. The bill states that SLS “may be used” for “Payloads and missions that contribute to extending human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and substantially benefit from the unique capabilities of the Space Launch System.”

The use of the word “may” doesn't mean that everything else is illegal. The language contains no prohibitions for other uses.

For me, the key language is “extending human presence beyond low-Earth orbit.” Certain legislators who represent NASA space centers and contractors have tried to force the agency to use SLS and its Orion crew capsule for ISS crew and cargo runs in low Earth orbit. That's a job for the commercial cargo and crew vendors, but some members of Congress have tried to strangle the commercial program in a bid to protect existing NASA jobs in their districts or states.

Section 302 of the 2010 NASA authorization act specified that SLS was to have “The capability to serve as a backup system for supplying and supporting ISS cargo requirements or crew delivery requirements not otherwise met by available commercial or partner-supplied vehicles.” It's a provision still raised from time to time during Congressional hearings, when a member concerned about protecting his pork grills a NASA witness demanding to know why SLS isn't being designed for the ISS.

So the provision in H.R. 2262 would seem to give NASA the freedom to formally ignore the 2010 legislation, although it doesn't seem to outright prohibit ISS use.

Another critical provision is Congressional approval to extend ISS operations through “at least” 2024. The agreements between NASA and its international partners expire in 2020. In January 2014, the Obama administration proposed extending ISS to 2024, and began negotiating extensions with its partners. Russia agreed in July. Canada is on board. The European and Japanese space agencies informally have agreed, but need formal approval from their governments.

One of the biggest concerns for NewSpace investors and researchers has been the lack of a formal Congressional commitment to operate ISS through 2020. Why spend years investing in an experiment to run on ISS when the station may not be there? Researchers were spooked when the Bush administration's 2004 Vision for Space Exploration called for decommissioning ISS in 2015, just five years after completion, to spend the money on the Constellation program. A common theme at this summer's ISS R&D and NewSpace conferences was that long-term availability of the ISS is critical to growing the NewSpace economy.

The video at the top of this column is a discussion about this subject at the July 2015 ISS R&D conference. Below is a video from later that month at the NewSpace conference on why entrepreneurs are choosing to invest in space.

A July 2015 panel at the NewSpace conference, titled “The Case for Space Panel: Why Investors Invest (Or Don't Invest).” Video source: Space Conferences YouTube channel.

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