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Decisive budget fight ahead for commercial crew program

Posted: March 12, 2012

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WASHINGTON -- After NASA chief Charles Bolden fielded blistering questions from Congress last week on the agency's commercial crew initiative, officials said NASA must emphasize the program's urgency and quell expectations ahead of upcoming budget negotiations, during which a crucial SpaceX commercial cargo test flight will attempt to reach the International Space Station, a symbolic mission for the burgeoning private human spaceflight industry.

File photo of Phil McAlister, director of NASA's commercial spaceflight program. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
"I had to turn off the hearings," said Phil McAlister, head of NASA's commercial spaceflight effort. "If I heard another senator say, 'commercial crew sucks' ... I had to turn it off because it was just too much. That's because of this change we're trying to implement, which a lot of people are not comfortable with."

Speaking to House and Senate committees March 7, Bolden staunchly defended the commercial crew program amid accusations NASA was shortchanging the agency's deep space exploration goals to pay for private space taxis to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station. Commercial crew services would end U.S. reliance on Russian spacecraft following the end of the space shuttle program.

Commercial crew flights are due to begin by 2017.

"We have to redouble our communications with our congressional stakeholders," McAlister said, adding that while he is buoyed by growing support for the commercial crew program, there is still disagreement between NASA and some members of Congress on its prioritization in the agency's broad portfolio.

Besides emphasizing the importance of the commercial crew program, McAlister said NASA also needs to manage public and congressional expectations during upcoming test flights in its commercial cargo program, a precursor to the crew initiative.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp., two companies selected to deliver supplies to the space station, will fly their Dragon and Cygnus spacecraft to the complex for the first time later this year.

Using a prototype for its proposed crew capsule, SpaceX's Dragon demonstration flight is set to blast off as soon as April 30.

Last month, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., outlined the symbolic influence the missions will have as Congress writes a budget for NASA's commercial crew program.

"We need SpaceX and Orbital to succeed, and we need to prove that the emerging commercial space industry can fly to the ISS safely and meet all of NASA's standards," Nelson said in a February speech at a Federal Aviation Administration commercial space conference.

"I want to see that SpaceX mission succeed, rendezvous and dock," Nelson said. "If that occurs in April, that is going to be right at the right time because that's about the time the decisions are starting to be made with regard to the appropriations."

Artist's concept of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft in orbit. Credit: SpaceX
But McAlister urged caution, saying NASA officials regularly meet with Capitol Hill staffers to set expectations .

His message: "Chill out about this flight. It's a big deal, but it's not make-or-break."

NASA's strategy is to partner with commercial providers to develop private spacecraft to rotate crews to and from the space station, freeing up government funding to pay for ambitious exploration missions to asteroids and other deep space destinations using a heavy-lift Space Launch System booster and the Orion capsule.

Until NASA's commercial partners develop and test a rocket and spacecraft to deliver astronauts to orbit, the space agency will continue purchasing seats on Russian Soyuz capsules for rides to and from the space station.

"I'm going to pay the Russians $450 million a year for every year that I don't have an American capability to put humans into low Earth orbit," Bolden said.

McAlister said the March 7 hearings made it clear NASA must better communicate the commercial crew program's importance, especially the need for healthy funding in fiscal 2013, which begins Oct. 1.

The budget request calls for nearly $830 million for the commercial crew program, up from the $406 million appropriated by Congress this year. But legislators cut this year's budget request by more than half, and in an election year with a backdrop of federal debt, another reduction is not unrealistic.

"There seems to be broad agreement that this is the right way to go," McAlister said Monday. "I think now it's just a matter of priorities. When you get such a limited amount of money, every dollar becomes critical."

But with the upcoming presidential and congressional elections, lawmakers could resist committing to a government budget until a new Congress and administration take power in early 2013.

Congress could pass a continuing resolution to extend funding at this year's levels. If legislators pass a continuing resolution, or CR, it would stymie the commercial crew program, limiting it to spending at a rate equal to fiscal 2012, in which the effort received less than half of its requested budget.

This year's $406 million commercial crew budget is far short of the $850 million asked for by the White House and NASA. According to NASA, the appropriation delayed the start of commercial human spaceflights from 2016 until 2017.

Artist's concept of Boeing's CST-100 spacecraft, the company's proposed crew capsule, approaching the space station. Credit: Boeing
"We definitely need the president's budget request to stay on course," McAlister said. "If we get significant cutbacks, then it's probably going to take us longer. At some point, you have to step back and take a look at the whole equation and see if the strategy still is appropriate."

Another delay in commercial crew services would move the start of flights closer to the space station's currently planned 2020 retirement date.

McAlister said the commercial crew program could absorb a short-term continuing resolution. But a full-year continuing resolution would be "very difficult," he said.

"That would slow us down substantially because the budget request is for double that," McAlister said. "Would it be fatal? We'll have to see the proposals" from industry.

Commercial partners have until March 23 to respond to a NASA call for proposals in the next round of the commercial crew competition. The agency will award agreements to multiple companies by August worth up to $500 million each, expecting providers to finalize their rocket and spacecraft designs by mid-2014.

"It's the first time we've asked industry to sign up to a full-up end-to-end cost and schedule," McAlister said. "We want to know what it's going to take to get to the end game, and how fast do you think you can get it?"

Up to now, commercial firms have received government funding to develop and test subsystems, build ground test vehicles and formulate designs.

NASA projects it will cost the federal government $5 billion or $6 billion to help fund at least two commercial partners through development. The cost estimate does not account for operational crew rotation services.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, accused the Obama administration of taking funding from the SLS and Orion programs to add to the commercial crew budget in the White House's fiscal 2013 spending request released in February.

"When we talk about commercial crew, it's really easy to use $406 million as the baseline," Bolden told Hutchison. "That's not the baseline. If you all recall, my original request was over $1 billion. We brought that down for fiscal year '12 to $850 million. We were cut by half. When I was asked last year, what effect does it have if you don't get $850 million? I said that directly affects the date of delivery of commercial crew capability. That is how we got to 2017 instead of 2015 or 2016. Any subsequent reductions from what the president has requested for commercial crew only serves to delay the amount of time that we have an American capability to get our crews to the International Space Station."

The Space Launch System and Orion programs would get a combined reduction of $326 million in the budget blueprint, which must be approved by Congress before taking effect.

The Obama administration's budget office and Congress agreed last year to set three top priorities for NASA: Extend the space station to 2020 and develop commercial vehicles to service it, start an exploration program with a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule, and finish building the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to Hubble.

"You called me with your budget proposal," Hutchison said. "And I see a $326 million combined reduction in Orion and SLS and a corresponding increase ... for commercial crew. I was frankly floored ... that it would be so blatant to take right out of Orion and SLS and put it into commercial crew, rather than trying to accomplish the joint goals that we have of putting forward both and making sure that we didn't take away from the timetables for the future to shore up the commercial crew."