The White House National Space Council held a short meeting today where Vice President Pence got good news updates on space activities across the government. The meeting was quickly overshadowed by the announcement that a high ranking NASA official was forced to resign yesterday, but there were some notable developments.
The 7th meeting of the National Space Council took place at NASA Headquarters and lasted just over an hour. Ironically, the key NASA officials involved in the meeting were not in the building. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and the two NASA astronauts, Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken, who are about to launch into space from Kennedy Space Center (KSC), FL participated via video conference from Johnson Space Center (JSC) near Houston.
Hurley and Behnken will fly from JSC to KSC tomorrow, a week before their scheduled May 27 launch to the International Space Station aboard a SpaceX Crew Dragon. This is the crewed test flight of SpaceX’s commercial crew system and the first launch of astronauts to orbit from American soil since the final space shuttle flight in 2011.
NASA is urging the public to watch the launch via the Internet due to the cornoavirus pandemic. Some special guests will be there, of course, and Pence said he will be at the launch.
There was little news in the NASA presentations. Some expected the launch date for the Artemis I mission to be announced. It is an uncrewed test flight of NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft around the Moon. The launch has been delayed many times, but the SLS core stage is finally built and has arrived at Stennis Space Center for testing. The “Green Run” test has been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic, but discussions at an advisory committee meeting last week suggested that a target date for the launch would be revealed this week.
Bridenstine said only that an Orion spacecraft will go around the Moon “by the end of 2021,” however. NASA’s original commitment was for launch in November 2018. That slipped to December 2019-June 2020, then into early 2021 and now late 2021. SLS and Orion are needed to return astronauts to the lunar surface. The Trump Administration has directed NASA to accomplish that by 2024. The Artemis II mission will be a crewed test flight. Artemis III is the one that will deliver the crew that will land on the surface.
The news that overshadowed the Space Council meeting today was that Doug Loverro, who headed NASA’s human spaceflight program including commercial crew and Artemis, was asked to resign last night. No mention was made of that at the Space Council meeting.
NASA is far from the only government agency involved in space activities. The Space Council membership covers all of them.
The Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration regulates the commercial space launch industry, while the Department of Commerce regulates commercial remote sensing satellites and has other space roles as well. Both departments were directed by President Trump in 2018 to modernize and streamline their regulations. They were supposed to be done last year, but it has taken longer than expected to find common ground between the government and industry.
Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross announced that the commercial remote sensing satellite regulations are now completed. They will be officially published in the Federal Register on May 20. He said they are cutting the licensing time in half, from 120 days to 60 days.
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao reported that she hopes the commercial launch services regulations will be finished in late summer “if everybody around the table is going to cooperate.” If was not obvious who the comment was directed at, but the Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), Russell Vought, was in attendance. OMB must approve all regulations before they are finalized.
Vought appears to be an ardent NASA supporter. When it came his turn to speak, he enthused that “we’ve never had as close a relationship with NASA” and he and Bridenstine have “made it our mission … to see things through each others eyes.” OMB has a “rooting interest” in getting NASA what it needs — “whether it’s securing the resources, or ensuring that your regulations go through in a timely manner,… or considering future departments to be created for the Cabinet of the United States.” The last comment appears to be a teaser that the Administration is considering a new Cabinet-level department that would include NASA, an idea that has been discussed, and rejected, for decades, usually as part of a Department of Science or Science and Technology.
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun reported that the State Department is already in discussions with five countries about the Artemis Accords that Bridenstine announced last week. He did not say which countries.
Deputy Secretary of Defense David Norquist and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten provided brief updates on the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Space Command. Norquist also called for development of international norms of behavior for space akin to maritime rules and to ensure the United States has unfettered access to and freedom of action in space.
Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette reiterated his joke that the Department of Energy (DOE) has a long history in space and DOE could just as easily be Department of Exploration. He noted that he has charged the Secretary of Energy Advisory Board (SEAB) with developing strategic advice and guidance for the Department’s space-related activities and Adm. Richard Mies (Ret.) and Norm Augustine are leading that effort. Mies is former commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Augustine is a former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin.
Several other officials were also present, but the overall thrust of the meeting was sharing positive developments since the last Space Council meeting. No major announcements were made.