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Jan 03 2014

NASA waiting on Da House to act

Suppose every time a civilian or pure research plane lifted off there was an obscure law, originally passed with good intentions, that had to be regularly re-authed by Congress or no more flights. And let’s just say that Congress became hyper-polarized, a do nothing body, where even the simplest, once uncontroversial acts morphed into a potential hot potato in a mid-term election year. Air traffic would grind to a halt.

Well, that’s a fair analogy for a bureaucratic hurdle currently faced by NASA, along with contractors and customers, all waiting on a critical reauthorization before a score of rockets can be duly licensed and cleared for launch in 2014. Follow me below, deep into the cosmic weeds, and we’ll review just how easy this should be to fix.

The concern is, or rather was during the early days of the commercial launch industry, that a big rocket veering off course could stray for miles in just a few seconds before streaking into a residential or commercial development like something out of a bad sci-fi movie. The example used back in the day was what happens if a Shuttle-sized vehicle goes out of control and hits Disney World, killing loads of innocent people and doing zillions of dollars worth of damage? It’s an incredibly unlikely disaster, perhaps one in a billion, but we all witnessed the tragic and devastating power of a civilian aircraft impact on Sept. 11, 2001. During the height of the space-race, rockets carried way more explosive fuel, were far less reliable, and flew way faster than any airliner today.

For decades, that liability risk was taken on by the federal government. Fortunately, such a cataclysm never happened. Thanks to enormous advances in reliability, the implementation of standard self destruct mechanisms, and the use of smaller launch vehicles, it probably never will. But just in case, someone still has to stand good for it. Nowadays, it makes sense that that someone should start with the aerospace contractors who made the hypothetically defective rocket, and end with NASA and related government agencies. Thus was born the Space Launch Act of 1984, followed by the Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments of 1988 .

The Act mandates that regulators determine what’s deemed the Maximum Probable Loss of a launch failure and write an insurance policy for the company to purchase. The exact insured amount required varies by the size and type of rocket and where it’s launched from, but it’s not uncommon to be in the neighborhood of hundreds of millions of dollars. In the extremely unlikely event that, someday, somehow, damage to third parties from falling debris exceeded even that exorbitant figure, the act auth’d the Department of Transportation to seek additional funds to pay those claims, through normal or special appropriation requests. All well and good: except this deal has expired. It has to be reauth’d by Congress and signed by the President before a bevy of pending launch licenses can be granted.

Here’s the rub: the requirement for insurance and additional authority to request funding in the event of a catastrophe beyond the calculated max probable loss is applied somewhat arbitrarily. Most DoD launches aren’t DoT-licensed and DoD has its own indemnification authority, so they get a special pass, even though it could be the same launch vehicles made by the same aerospace firms. In layperson’s terms, NSA spy sats are go for liftoff. But if Google wants to put up a bird or new, nimble companies want to bid on supplying the ISS using their lower cost platforms, guess what? That’s considered a commercial launch. Which means they’re stuck waiting for Congress to get this ledge to the WH.

The good news is the Senate has already passed a three-year re-auth clearing the way. Sources close to the administration tell me the President would sign it as soon as it reaches his desk. Alas, for whatever reason, the House only passed a one year re-auth. But I’m told there’s widespread bipartisan willingness to go along with the longer, Senate version and for good reasons. We won’t have to worry about navigating this particular legislative maze again until 2017. If contractors are willing to assume the lion’s share of liability previously borne by taxpayers, it makes sense to lock in the longest term deal we can get them to go along with. And lastly, at the risk of sounding cynical, the more often something has to be auth’d by Congress, the more chances for it to blow up and the greater the chances some scheming lobbyist figures out a clever way to exploit that recurring annual ordeal to advance their sole client’s interests at the expense of taxpayers and other missions (See Eternalstudent’s take on this part below, I believe it is an informative and fair point s/he makes).

This is such a no brainer that senior lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, who can barely agree on the time of day, want it done. Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-MD), hands down one of the sharpest members on the House Science Committee, currently serving as the ranking dem on the Subcommittee on Space, explained, “It is my hope that a bipartisan extension will encourage the Science Committee to do its due diligence and hold oversight hearings with experts from both the FAA and industry.” Edwards said, “Too often, we extend these programs while not following through on our responsibility to conduct oversight and offer responsible reforms. We must put this to bed for good and give our industry the stability they need to move forward on a level playing field with our international partners.”

Several influential Republicans also told me they are in favor of getting a chance to vote yeah or nay on a three year extension. House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), added “it is important for us to provide certainty and stability to the commercial space industry by authorizing indemnification longer than just one year.”

None of this is terribly controversial, there’s no standard left-right political risk here. But putting it on the back-burner costs real money and causes real problems, and at the worst time possible. After years of budget cuts and sequesters, NASA is underfunded just like most any other department these days, constantly being forced to do more with less. But they’ve still managed to do a lot, in no small part because we as taxpayers have spent a ton of good money to build and maintain the world’s premier space exploration infrastructure essential for NASA and related entities to do what they do.

To have any of that expensive capacity lay fallow, waiting on a minor piece of ledge everyone seems to agree should go forward, isn’t just a threat to continuing progress, or a dreadful waste of resources, it is money right out of our collective pockets. If dragged out, it could spiral into a series of totally unnecessary delays and the cost increases that always come along for the ride. At a time when budget hawks, supported by the occasional anti-science lunatic and associated right-wing media ideologues we all know too well, are always foaming at the mouth looking for anything that can be spun into the same-old, dreary Big Expensive Gubmint-run-amok narrative they seem to crave.

The solution is surprisingly simple, even in a town like DC where damn near everything else is convoluted beyond all belief. The solution is also surprisingly satisfying, especially in an era where large companies in other industries have been more than happy to offload their all too predictable screw-ups and zillion dollar losses onto the public without a second thought. For chrisake, if any corporation is fine with standing up and spending their own money insuring our private homes and businesses, thus taking responsibility for their actions and products to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, all in return for simply being assured our government will continue to do what it has always done, I say we freaking let them!

All that’s needed for that win-win scenario to come true is for the House to get this out of committee, schedule a vote passing the routine three-year extension, send that uncontroversial measure up to the WH, and viola. Problem solved. Not a bad way for space junkies and science aficionado’s to start a new year.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    tubi

    Who’s holding it up, if senior Reps (I assume that means Boehner and Cantor) want it done? Is there some sort of ideological objection they are trying to swim around in order to get it to the floor?

  2. 2
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    Last I heard it was in Edwards subcmte being looked at. I don’t know if I would characterize that as holding it up just yet. But if it drags out there, there could come a point when that could be called holding it up.

  3. 3
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    I hate this news and reality.

    But thanks for letting us know.

    Because this is something we all should know.

  4. 4
    alanuk

    I cannot see much of a problem here. There are other sites for launching rockets. The rest of the world will just carry on without you. I would not be surprised if the rest of the world is getting a little bit tired of the US.

  5. 5
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    Alunk, fair point. Everyone understands that until that reauth goes thru, civilian launch licenses cannot be granted? To answer your question, if you want to really get into the weeds — I didn’t include this in the piece overtly but it’s there subtlety — some sources close to the topic speculate that one or two vehicle makers — I’ve heard Lockheed and Boeing both mentioned but I don’t know for sure — are encouraging key lawmakers to stall and slowtrack the reauth. One classic way to do that is to make it different enough from the other chamber’s version that it gets bogged down in procedure, I.e., pass a one year auth instead of the aklready passed, standard Senate three year version, and it looks to laypeople like you’re trying get it done when in fact insiders can see plainly you are stalling it.

    An aerospace firm might want that, because that firm or firms might have only mil/gov launches scheduled for the next few months that get a pass and they are in a dev phase tweaking a new vehicle compete for future commercial launch business. So if that firm or firms can stop competitors from their delivering their contracted payloads by delaying the reauth, it gives them a business advantage, buys them dev time, preserves a shot at getting the contracts, all while creating headaches and bad PR for their competitors. You with me?

    On the international question, other nations have similar indemnification set ups, some more complex and way more corrupt than ours. But the US is far and way the leading aerospace center on Earth. You’re right that, if companies give up on the US, (And pack up their fragile vehicles and ship them overseas, put them on a train to the Ukraine or China and then jump thru all their launch license hoops), there are a few nations that might be able to take up a little bit of the slack, but it would take years to develop the additional capacity to take it all on. Meanwhile, these launches are already scheduled here in the US, the pads/latitude needed for the specific end orbit already reserved, the vehicles configured or being configured for the specific payloads, all subject to other, more complex regs and requirement for US launch licenses.

    If those routine licenses aren’t granted it costs the companies money to basically start over, it costs the taxpayers money because we don’ get paid for them using our facilities (And in some cases we are on the hook for what’s called termination liability, in simplistic terms that means, basically, breach of contract), the end result is it cripples progress across all kinds of industries and could eventually lead to significant layoffs all over the nation and the world. The bottom line is it’s easily resolved by simply passing the same re-auath that’s been passed many times in the past. A re-auth that not only doesn’t cost the taxpaying public a cent, it actually saves us millions.

  6. 6
    Reginald Selkirk

    Jenny McCarthy sues to prove she’s still stupid

    Jenny McCarthy says she plans to take legal action following a report claiming she had changed her controversial anti-vaccination stance…

  7. 7
    eternalstudent

    Stephen @ 5: Yes, that is quite a lot of it. Right now ULA (Boeing + LockMart joint venture) has a lock on government launches, only Atlas 5 and Delta 4 are qualified to handle satellites over a couple thousand pounds. Falcon and Antares are pursuing qualification, but they need a minimum of three consecutive successful launches before they can be considered. Anything the ULA primes can do to interfere with that will extend their monopoly. There is the licensing issue in your post, there is also an issue with a new noncompete deal between Boeing and Energomash for the RD180 engines used in the Atlas 5, Orbital was looking into using them to replace the AJ26 based engines on Antares (AJ26 is a remanufactured NK-33, which were built for the Soviet moon program and stored for the last 40 years). SpaceX is getting some “grassroots” pushback for wanting to lease LC39A at the Cape (I suppose it’s supposed to become a museum or something).

    If these upstarts can obtain full certification to launch USAF and NRO payloads then ULA will suddenly have competition with vehicles half the price of their own. So they do what they can to avoid that as long as possible.

    Incidentally, a stray launch doesn’t really have to go far at all to be a hazard to the general populace, esp. from the Florida Cape. The area surrounding the launch facilities is pretty built up, a low-altitude explosion can send flaming chunks and toxic hypergolic fuels pretty far. Check out the videos of the Delta II explosion in 1997 (a GPS satellite IIRC) to see how much devastation can be associated with even a failure on the Cape property, imagine if it started to turn off-course before being terminated (this failure was pretty much straight up, before the rocket tipped over to head downrange).

  8. 8
    Stephen "DarkSyde" Andrew

    ^^ This commentator is clearly in the know. Read that carefully,^^ folks, and you’ll get the ugly, seamy side of this deal. I was told on background of the ULA angle, and that there might even be members on the sci cmte with BA or LMT interests in their districts who would have an ulterior motive to stall the re-auth for the exact reason Eternal explained above. But I couldn’t get anyone on the record about it and therefore wasn’t confident enough to propose that kind of serious allegation in the main piece.

    Eternal is also right, Merritt Island, juts a few miles away from KSC, has been greatly built up in the last two decades. Dangerously so in the opinion of some. That’s another reason I’m not ready to say the reauth is being intentionally stalled by Edward’s sub cmte: if a rocket hit Merritt Island middle school, there’s your next Benghazi/IRS scandal and Edwards et al could be one of the people on the receiving end of Daryl Issa’s next show trial featuring charred little bodies as evidence for Obama’s devious plan to destroy ‘murica. That lady is sharp as a tack, if she tells me she needs some time to carefully study it, she has earned my benefit of the doubt.

    BTW, this piece has been picked up for posting on Daily Kos, scheduled for an hour from now.

  9. 9
    eternalstudent

    Everything I wrote above can be found in the public forums at nasaspaceflight.com. It’s a recurring theme in some of the sub-forums there.

  10. 10
    StevoR : Free West Papua, free Tibet, let the Chagossians return!

    @me @ #3 :

    D’oh! I didn’t put in blockquotes this? :

    Suppose every time a civilian or pure research plane lifted off there was an obscure law, originally passed with good intentions, that had to be regularly re-authed by Congress or no more flights. And let’s just say that Congress became hyper-polarized, a do nothing body, where even the simplest, once uncontroversial acts morphed into a potential hot potato in a mid-term election year. Air traffic would grind to a halt. Well, that’s a fair analogy for a bureaucratic hurdle currently faced by NASA, along with contractors and customers, all waiting on a critical reauthorization before a score of rockets can be duly licensed and cleared for launch in 2014…

    Before this? :

    “I hate this news and reality. But thanks for letting us know. Because this is something we all should know.” ( – Moi /Watashi)”

    Dangnabbit, I thought I had done that. Mea culpa, apologies.

    This, OTOH, for clarity :

    All that’s needed for that win-win scenario to come true is for the House to get this out of committee, schedule a vote passing the routine three-year extension, send that uncontroversial measure up to the WH, and viola. Problem solved. Not a bad way for space junkies and science aficionado’s to start a new year.

    *Would* be flippin’ great to see and have happen.

    For clarity because I stuffed it up firts time around.

  11. 11
    Randomfactor

    Looks like da House got jizzy wit it.

    http://clerk.house.gov/evs/2013/roll640.xml

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