As the year ended on Capitol Hill, funding bills stalled, triggering a shutdown, while a commercial space regulatory reform bill went down to defeat. (credit: Architect of the Capitol)
by Jeff Foust
The end of the year is typically a time to take stock of the past 12 months and look ahead to the next 12 months. It’s an opportunity to wrap up loose ends and make plans for new projects for the year to come.
But in the field of space policy, the transition from 2018 to 2019 brings with it a lot of incomplete work. A political dispute has shut down part of the US federal government, including NASA, with no sign of a near-term resolution. Congress also failed to act on some space-related legislation, including one reforming commercial space legislation, forcing the new Congress to start over in January.
The 2019 fiscal year started October 1, like virtually all previous years, with much of the government operating under a stopgap continuing resolution (CR) funding agencies at 2018 levels. This year, in some respects, was better than past ones, with some 2019 spending bills, including one for the Defense Department, already enacted. But for the rest of the government, including NASA, had to operate under CRs until Congress could come to terms on final appropriations bills.
The latest CR—a two-week extension of the previous one—was set to expire at midnight December 21. Those two weeks featured up-and-down negotiations between the White House and Congressional leadership about whether to include $5 billion in border wall funding, something President Trump strongly advocated for but which Democrats in Congress opposed.
By late December 19, the path appeared clear to pass another CR and delay the fight on the border wall funding. On a voice vote, the Senate approved a CR without the border wall funding that would keep the government operating through February 8. However, after Republican House leaders met with President Trump December 20, they amended that CR to include the border wall funding, passing it on a party-line vote. The Senate, lacking the votes needed to pass that amended bill, didn’t act on it. At midnight December 21, the shutdown started.
For NASA, that meant carrying out a familiar script. The agency’s shutdown plan, updated December 18, is similar to the one it followed for a three-day shutdown in January when another CR expired. (There was also a brief lapse of funding—approximately eight hours—in February, too short to even start to implement such a plan.) Under the plan, essential NASA activities, including operation of the International Space Station and other missions, and those needed to protect property and life, will continue. All others, though, would be put on hold, furloughing about 95 percent of NASA’s civil servant workforce.
In typical circumstances, a brief shutdown over the year-end holidays might not be that disruptive. But the end of 2018 brings with it two major spacecraft activities: the OSIRIS-REx spacecraft enters orbit around the asteroid Bennu Monday, while the New Horizons spacecraft flies past the Kuiper Belt object 2014 MU69, aka Ultima Thule, at 12:33 am EST Tuesday. Those spacecraft operations will continue even during the shutdown given their critical nature.
However, NASA’s ability to publicize those events would be affected by the shutdown. According to NASA’s shutdown plan, the agency would not update its website or social media accounts during the shutdown, and NASA TV would be turned off, as was the case in the January shutdown. The Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), which operates New Horizons, made contingency plans to provide coverage of the flyby on its own website.
However, those missions got a bit of a reprieve. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine tweeted December 27 that both the New Horizons and OSIRIS-REx events would be covered. “The contract for these activities was forward funded,” he wrote, but didn’t indicate for how long. That appeared to be a last-minute change: a December 28 briefing about the New Horizons flyby was carried on NASA TV on the agency’s website, but the YouTube stream of NASA TV was still offline at that time.
The shutdown will still prevent NASA public affairs personnel from working the flyby, and the agency from distributing releases about it, said Alan Stern, principal investigator for New Horizons, at a December 30 briefing at APL. NASA executives also won’t able to participate in flyby events in their official capacity, he added, but can attend as private citizens, as many others will during the events Monday and Tuesday there. “Other than that we are essentially unaffected,” he said.
“We’re authorized to proceed and do everything we’re supposed to do to get all the science back,” Mike Ryschkewitsch, head of APL’s Space Exploration Sector, said at another APL briefing. NASA, he said, instructed APL to use its “best judgement” on any decisions needed to carry out the mission. “On a day-to-day basis, it doesn’t have any effect.”
The shutdown did have an effect on a few members of the New Horizons science team who are NASA civil servants. “Because this is a critical operation, they received special permission, just like the flight controllers for the ISS, to be at this and to support the flyby,” Stern said.
Among them was Jeff Moore, a scientist at the NASA Ames Research Center who leads the part of the science team devoted to geology and geophysics investigations. He said that he and another science team member from Ames, Dale Cruikshank, had to “deal with the bureaucracy” to be excepted from the furlough and to get permission to travel across the country to APL. “We both spent a day filling out paperwork and dealing with the system,” he said.
Was that easy, one reporter asked? “No, it wasn’t.”
While the near-term effects of the shutdown may be largely mitigated for now, more problems will emerge the longer it continues. No action is expected on resolving the funding dispute before Thursday, when the new Congress convenes with Democrats in control of the House. The House will likely pass, as early as Thursday, a new CR that might be identical to the one the Senate approved easily in December. However, the new Senate will have to pass it as well, which is less certain. President Trump has also continued to threaten to veto any spending bill that doesn’t include $5 billion in border wall funding.
Among those looming problems is SpaceX’s first commercial crew demonstration mission, called DM-1. That uncrewed test flight of the company’s Crew Dragon spacecraft was, prior to the shutdown, scheduled for launch January 17 from the Kennedy Space Center. But with NASA personnel supporting that mission, such as for required pre-flight reviews, furloughed by the shutdown, that launch may slip again even if the vehicle is ready to go. Russian media reported over the weekend that the launch had been pushed back to the end of January, but there has been no confirmation of that NASA—perhaps because there’s no one available to make that announcement.
As the debate about funding the government continued on Capitol Hill, members of Congress were also making a last-minute push on some space-related legislation on a variety of topics. If those bills weren’t passed by the end of the 115th Congress at the end of the year, they would be discarded, forcing proponents to start over in the new 116th Congress in January.
The centerpiece of those efforts was a Senate bill called the Space Frontier Act, or S.3277. The bill, introduced in the Senate in July, would reform commercial remote sensing regulations to make it easier for companies to get a license, and streamline commercial launch licensing regulations. The bill also authorized an extension of the ISS from 2024 to 2030, a rebuke to the administration’s plan, in its fiscal year 2019 budget request, to end direct funding of the station in 2025.
The bill cleared the Senate Commerce Committee in August but then stalled, in part because of negotiations between the House and the Senate. The bill’s proponents, though, hadn’t given up on it.
“I remain confident that we will continue to operate the ISS well past the middle of the next decade,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the committee, in a December 10 speech on the Senate floor, one of his last after losing reelection last month. “As a matter of fact, Senator Cruz and I are still trying in this Congress to get the date for extension of the International Space Station extended to the end of the decade.” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) was the sponsor of the Space Frontier Act, which Nelson co-sponsored.
Those efforts appeared the pay off. On December 20, the Senate approved by unanimous consent—a mechanism for expedited passage of non-controversial bills—a revised version of the Space Frontier Act. The new version included some additional provisions, such as studies on the joint use of military facilities for commercial launches and ways to improve the integration of launches and reentries into the national airspace system. It also formally renamed the Office of Space Commerce in the Commerce Department the Bureau of Space Commerce, a reorganization sought by the department earlier this year.
It wasn’t clear that the bill would be taken up by the House, and a schedule released by the House Majority Leader on December 21 didn’t include it. However, it did make it to the floor that day under the House’s mechanism for expedited passage of bills, called suspension of the rules. That limits debate and prevents amendments, but requires a two-thirds majority for passage.
It was there, though, that the bill stumbled. That was in part because both the outgoing and incoming chairs of the House Science Committee weren’t that enthused about the bill—albeit for very different reasons.
“The Space Frontier Act is a missed opportunity,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), the retiring chairman of the committee. He lamented the fact that the bill didn’t include many of the reforms of a bill passed in April by the House, the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. That bill made stronger reforms to commercial remote sensing, including a stronger “presumption of approval” if the government didn’t act on a license application by the stated deadline.
“We set out to change how we think about remote sensing, a growing, constantly advancing, and increasingly commonplace industry that should be free to act unless there is a good reason to prevent that,” he said on the House floor. “Instead, this bill only tinkers around the edge of a three-decade out-of-date law.”
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the committee who is set to chair it in the next Congress, had her own reservations about the Space Frontier Act. “The process that brought us to this point is extremely disappointing,” she said, offering only “reluctant support” for the bill. “Many of the provisions of this bill have not been seriously vetted by the Science Committee. I doubt very much whether they were at all vetted by anyone in the Senate.”
While that lukewarm support didn’t help the bill’s prospects, what likely hurt it even more was a behind-the-scenes campaign opposing it, led by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), the incoming chairman of the House Transportation Committee. DeFazio was reportedly concerned the bill compromised the safety and efficiency of the national airspace system through provisions regarding improved integration of launches and reentries. That has been a growing area of concern, particularly in the aviation community, given the increasing number of commercial launches (see “Space, fighting for airspace”, The Space Review, November 19, 2018).
In the end, the Space Frontier Act got 239 yes votes to 137 no votes, short of the two-thirds majority needed for passage. Nearly all the no votes came from Democrats, although 45 voted in favor of the bill. Johnson herself did not cast a vote.
That vote killed the bill, and other space-related bills, including the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, also languished. (Congress did pass one very minor space-related bill, which extends by one year NASA’s authority to lease its facilities to companies.) Those efforts will have to start over in the new Congress.
Some aspects of the Space Frontier Act will go forward even with the bill’s defeat. The FAA is working on proposed rules to streamline launch licensing regulations, with a draft due for release February 1. The Commerce Department has also been working on proposed changes to commercial remote sensing regulations. Those regulations are being reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget, said Kevin O’Connell, director of the Office of Space Commerce, at a space law event in early December. He said he expected the draft rules to be released in the near future for public comment.
Johnson, in her comments on the House floor, said that while she had reservations about some aspects of the Space Frontier Act, she supported others, including an extension of the ISS. She was uncertain whether 2030 was the right year to extend the ISS to, but noted she opposed the administration’s proposal to end funding of it in 2025. “As we move into the next Congress, this is something that I hope to be looking into,” she said.
First, though, is figuring out how to end the shutdown.