Counting the Full Cost Of Congressional Hostility to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program


InnerSpace Opinion

“He who pays the piper, calls the tune.”

On Wednesday, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sent a letter to Congress informing America’s elected representatives that due to consistent under-funding of the Commercial Crew program since its inception, his agency would be forking over an additional $490 million to Russia to pay for Soyuz crew transport to ISS through 2018.

The news was not precisely new given the fact that Bolden had issued a similar warning earlier in the year as the Administration’s FY 2016 budget request was coming out. It was, he said at the time, a necessary contingency. At that point however, there was still an opportunity for Congress to take substantive action to mitigate the damage done by four consecutive years of under-funding, and grant something very close to the 1.244 billion being sought.

Instead, the House appropriated $1 billion, while the Senate Appropriations Committee has steered towards a figure of $900 million.  Either way, it does not look as though NASA will getting the funding it requires and thus the letter which said in part:

“Since the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2004, NASA has been committed to developing a follow-on, low-Earth orbit transportation system and limiting our reliance on others to transport U.S. crew to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2010, I presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015 if provided the requested level of funding. Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned. This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS.

I am writing to inform you that NASA, once again, has modified its current contract with the Russian government to meet America’s requirements for crew transportation services. Under this contract modification, the cost of these services to the U.S. taxpayers will be approximately $490 million. I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry – the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX – to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.”

Given the prior history, it is likely that Bolden’s latest appeal will fall on deaf ears, or more accurately, ears which can only hear what certain vested interests want them hear. And that is the steady drum-beat of SLS, SLS, SLS, a numbing rhythm to which the entire NASA media boom box enthusiastically, but very unhelpfully cranks out “Journey to Mars, Journey to Mars” at every opportunity, even if the context is absurd.

And while it is not difficult to divine who is doing the whispering, it is important to remember that it is the American taxpayer who is ultimately paying for this dance, and for many interests whose voices are not making it through the din, it may very well be a Danse Macabre.

Media reports have understandably focused on the fact that at $490 million for six seats (which to be clear, does include other items such as training and support) the United States will now be paying $81 million per astronaut, an increase of $5 million over the per-seat 2017 figures. That however, only begins to cover a full accounting of what Congressional intransigence is actually costing the nation.

Administrator Bolden is justifiably upset that with the U.S. obligated to support ISS crew transfer in any event, the same money now going to Russia could have been going to Boeing and SpaceX instead. As an aside, one suspects that certain U.S. elected officials could care less, and in fact are quite entranced by the possibility that the delays Bolden warns could ensue might actually result in a first flight of the Space Launch System before the inaugural Commercial Crew mission.

While that still appears unlikely, at least at this point, what is being delayed is any possibility of maximizing the returns from American, and indeed international investment in the Station program in the first place. As Space Station program officials have pointed out on multiple occasions, at the current maximum occupancy level of six astronauts, ISS faces severe limits on the man-hours available for research. Those limits quickly dissipate with the presence of a single additional astronaut however, offering as much as a doubling of output. Until Commercial Crew comes on-line though, a seventh occupant is out of the questions due to the 3 person capacity of each of the two Soyuz capsules which constitute a full crew. With the addition of a minimum four person capacity in either the SpaceX Dragon or Boeing CST-100 capsule, the cap is lifted and research output increases… a lot.

Given that the United States spends a little over $3 billion a year on the station program and will continue doing so until 2024, another way to look at the matter is to ponder the fact that not only is Congress intentionally transferring funds to Russia when it doe not have to, it is also reducing the return on a $3 billion annual investment in ISS by as much as 50% at the same time.  And that is a cost which needs to be counted from the first year Commercial Crew could plausibly have been available to until the moment it actually is. The count now stands at three years.

Despite all of that, the reality is potentially much worse. Supporters of the SLS/Orion programs and NASA’s ostensible “Journey to Mars” tend to eagerly anticipate the end of the ISS program, viewing its physical and budgetary demise as opening a funding wedge which will be necessary to pay for any of the hardware needed to actually do something with the behemoth booster and corpulent capsule. To an extent, this is understandable and if you happen to be a true believer in this particular vision of a retro-future, it will be a day to rejoice.

The problem however, is that in a misguided effort to cripple Commercial Crew in order to favor SLS/Orion (and make no mistake, that is what this is about) Congress is not only extending reliance on Russia and artificially capping ISS research, it also putting off the day when commercial providers can obviate the need for a massive, singular, government funded space station in the first place.

While NewSpace advocates often point to Bigelow Aerospace’s plans for a privately funded space station, and perhaps a series of them, as the logical direction for a post-ISS future, the prospects for such a facility are almost entirely dependent on the successful introduction of NASA’s Commercial Crew program to close the business case. In persistently under-funding the program and imposing additional delays, Congress is ultimately under-cutting the chances for a timely, orderly and affordable transition from public to to privately driven research in low Earth orbit. SLS ironically enough, may be set to suffer the most.

Leaving aside the safety implications associated with the tepid pace of Space Launch System flight operations anticipated for the coming decade, as well as the delays which may ensue from implementing a series of upgrades, there is another issue to consider as well. The refusal to fully support Commercial Crew also raises the possibility that the United States may wake up some time in the mid 2020’s to find its space program flying astronauts once per year or even less on relatively brief missions of limited consequence even as Russia and China open up their own planned stations to other nations and economic interests on a full time basis. Arguments for continued NASA funding on the basis of STEM inspiration and national leadership go out the airlock.

With any luck, such a sterile vision will not come to pass due to the energy and funding being poured into the burgeoning NewSpace industry, and further delays to Commercial Crew are only that, delays in a now irrepressible future which is already on the doorstep, if not quite over the threshold.

The really frustrating fact though, is that none of the drama is even necessary. But for the actions of a few key representatives, and the influence of those who are still calling the tune, NASA and the American people really could have the best of both worlds. As Bolden and others have pointed out, there is no reason SLS and Commercial Crew cannot co-exist within NASA’s existing budget limits, unless of course you have a reason for not wanting them to.

It is time for other stakeholders to force their way to the jukebox if necessary, drop in a quarter, and change the song. If that means a bar fight, so be it.

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