U.S. Capitol

The House passed a defense authorization bill Wednesday night with revised language on launch system spending.

Members approved an amendment that increases the share of overall rocket propulsion funding work that can be spent on items other than a main engine from 25 percent to 31 percent.

The amendment also removed an earlier requirement that the government retain intellectual property rights. The overall National Defense Authorization Act passed on a 277–147 vote. [SpacePolicyOnline]

The Senate’s version a defense authorization bill would withhold funding for commercial satellite bandwidth program. The bill, approved by the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, blocks the Air Force from spending $30 million on its COMSATCOM Pathfinder program unless it can show the program has “orders of magnitude improvements” over existing approaches. The report accompanying the bill indicated the committee was frustrated by a lack of information from the Air Force about how that program will be more effective than the Air Force’s own Wideband Global Satcom satellites. [SpaceNews]

More News

The National Reconnaissance Office has revealed it awarded a launch contract to SpaceX. In a speech at GEOINT 2016 Wednesday, NRO Director Betty Sapp said “we’ve bought launches from SpaceX,” but offered no details. An NRO spokesperson later said that SpaceX is on contract for the launch of the NROL-76 mission in March 2017 from Cape Canaveral. Details about the mission, including which Falcon version SpaceX will use and its cost, were not disclosed. The NRO did not state when they awarded the contract, or if it was a competitive process, but the contract could be up to three years old. [SpaceNews]

The NRO is also planning to make greater use of small satellites in the future. Sapp said NRO is using cubesats not just for technology demonstrations but also for “actual mission application.” She did not disclose what applications those satellites are performing, but said they enable the NRO to pursue missions that would otherwise be too expensive. Sapp also said the NRO is developing a next-generation ground control system that will handle all of its satellites, rather than systems developed for individual programs. [SpaceNews]

The head of satellite operator SES said he is not as concerned about an industry slowdown as some of his competitors. SES CEO Karim Sabbagh said despite reports of sales declines and overcapacity, he sees plenty of opportunities for growth in the industry. That growth, he said, is in specific areas, like video services and in emerging markets such as Indonesia. Despite his optimism, shares in SES have dropped more than seven percent so far this month. [Wall Street Journal]

DigitalGlobe said NOAA has yet to act on its request to sell higher resolution data, nearly three years after it submitted it. Company executive vice president and CTO Walter Scott said at the GEOINT conference this week that the company is restricted to selling images from the short wave infrared imager instrument on the WorldView-3 satellite at a resolution of 7.5 meters, while the government can purchase images from that instrument at a resolution of 3.7 meters. Scott said NOAA, working with other government agencies, is still reviewing a company request submitted nearly three years ago to allow it to sell images at higher resolutions, and has not indicated when it will make a decision. [SpaceNews]

Lockheed Martin has proposed a crewed Mars orbit mission that could fly in 2028. The Mars Base Camp concept uses a combination of Orion spacecraft, habitat modules, and both solar electric and chemical propulsion systems to support a crewed mission in Mars orbit, including visits to the moons Phobos and Deimos. Astronauts would not land on the surface of Mars itself, but would teleoperate rovers there. Lockheed Martin is proposing the concept to NASA for future study. [Popular Science]
Alexander Gerst will be the first German astronaut to command the International Space Station. The European Space Agency said Wednesday that Gerst will serve as commander of the Expedition 57 crew starting in September 2018. That command will cover the second half of a six-month stay on the station for Gerst that will begin with a launch in May 2018. Gerst previously spent six months on the ISS in 2014. [Spaceflight Now]

A Canadian microsatellite bumped from a 2014 Russian launch because of geopolitics will finally fly next month. The Maritime Monitoring and Messaging Microsatellite (M3MSat), built by Com Dev for the Canadian military, will be a secondary payload on a June launch of an Indian PSLV rocket. M3MSat was scheduled to launch two years ago as secondary payload on a Soyuz rocket, but the Canadian government withdrew the satellite from that launch in protest of Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The satellite will test an improved system for tracking ships at sea. [SpaceNews]

Construction of a SpaceX launch site in Texas has upset some neighbors. Residents of a  housing development near the site outside Brownsville have complained that trucks carrying dirt to the site pose a safety issue for them, and that there’s a lack of adequate signage to indicate what is SpaceX property. SpaceX said it’s working with the contractor to address those issues. The trucks had been bringing dirt to stabilize the soil at the site before construction can begin, but those trucks will not return for several months as the initial phase of soil stabilization has ended. [KGBT-TV Rio Grande Valley, Texas]

“The Administrator” Is Harder Than “The Martian”

“If you had Charlie’s job, what would you do differently?”

“First off, I’d probably drive NASA into the ground. I think Charlie’s job takes a certain amount of skills that I don’t have.”

– Andy Weir, author of The Martian, answering a question from Washington Post reporter Chris Davenport during a panel Wednesday about what he would do if he took Charlie Bolden’s job as NASA administrator. Weir later offered he would invest more in commercial systems to lower launch costs to make later exploration missions more affordable.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...