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Reduced budget threatens delay in private spaceships

Posted: November 23, 2011

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This year's NASA budget halves the requested funding for the agency's commercial crew transportation program, placing the initiative's goal of ending U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz spacecraft by 2016 in jeopardy, according to NASA officials.

Artist's concept of a Dragon spacecraft, one of the vehicles competing to carry NASA astronauts. Credit: SpaceX
The budget calls for $406 million for the commercial crew program, which partners with private firms to jointly invest in U.S. spacecraft to haul astronauts to and from the International Space Station.

Congress passed the bill Thursday and President Obama signed the budget into law while traveling overseas.

After the space shuttle's retirement, the only vehicle capable of the human transport job is Russia's Soyuz spacecraft. The Soyuz flies about four times per year, and NASA has booked seats for U.S. astronauts through mid-2016 at a cost of about $63 million per seat.

Companies vying for contracts to ferry crews to space say they can beat the Soyuz price. With sufficient funding, they all claim they could be ready for operational flights by the middle of this decade.

But the $406 million outlined in the fiscal year 2012 budget is less than half of the Obama administration's $850 million request for the commercial crew program.

The Senate and House appropriations committees passed legislation calling for commercial crew funding levels of $500 million and $312 million, respectively. A conference committee between lawmakers agreed to a compromise budget at $406 million.

In prepared testimony to the Senate subcommittee on science and space, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden cautioned legislators on the consequences of a smaller commercial crew budget.

"A reduction in funding from the president's request could significantly impact the program's schedule, risk posture, and acquisition strategy," Bolden's testimony said, adding that a budget of $500 million would delay commercial crew service to the space station until 2017.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said the funding of NASA's commercial crew program needs to be increased.

"[Commercial crew] is an area that we're going to have to work on because we all agree that we want to stop paying as quickly as we can to the Russians for the seats to get to and from the International Space Station," Nelson said.

The Florida Democrat is chairman of the Senate subcommittee with NASA oversight.

"I would say that with only [about] $400 million, it does put at serious risk our ability to fly by the middle of the decade and not rely on the Russians for another year or more," said Ed Mango, NASA's manager of the commercial crew program.

Artist's concept of a Dream Chaser spacecraft developed by Sierra Nevada Corp. launching on an Atlas 5 rocket provided by United Launch Alliance. Credit: Sierra Nevada
Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Mango said it's still too early to know the exact implications of the budget. The space agency was planning to open the next round of competition as soon as December with a formal solicitation for proposals from industry.

NASA is currently working with four spacecraft builders in funded agreements worth up to $315.5 million to mature the design of their vehicles. The next phase will be open to all companies regardless of their participation in the program so far.

The funded partners in the ongoing design round are Boeing Co., SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin.

With the budget reduction, NASA will have to select fewer companies or slow the pace of development to start the next round of competition. Agency officials prefer to maintain multiple companies in the program as long as possible, possibly through flight tests and crew transport operations.

"The longer we can keep competition at some level, I think the better off the taxpaper will wind up being," Mango said. "So we would like to maintain that competition."

Mango said his team is still digesting the budget ramifications for the commercial crew program, which is headquartered at the Kennedy Space Center.

"We're going to take that funding we have, lay out our best plan forward and that will come out in the next few weeks," Mango said.

A draft version of the solicitation released in September outlined NASA's plans to spend $1.6 billion in the next phase of the commercial crew program. NASA planned to award contracts to multiple companies running from July 2012 through April 2014.

The so-called Integrated Design Contract would focus on developing an end-to-end system, including spacecraft, launch vehicles, launch services, ground and mission operations and recovery.

Mango said the impact of the lower-than-planned fiscal year 2012 budget could be reduced by adjusting the profile of spending in the commercial crew program. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30, and the NASA budget for fiscal year 2013 won't be decided until next year.

If the commercial crew program receives more funding in 2013, the effects of this year's slashed budget could be dampened, Mango said.