Update: NewSpace V. Old Ways and SpaceX in Congressional Crosshairs

Image Credit : SpaceX

On Monday, Innerspace reported on a story in Space News about an excerpt from a letter sent by U.S. Representatives  Lamar Smith (Tx) and Steven Palazzo, (Ms) to NASA Administrator Charles Bolden regarding the possible use of Orion as a backup to Commercial Crew. Significantly, the letter also questioned whether or not Orion could take the place of the “second” Commercial Crew provider.

At the time, the letter itself was not available, but as this morning it is, courtesy of SpacePolicyOnline.  For anyone interested in the near term future of American spaceflight in general, or SpaceX and NewSpace in particular, it is a must read. Here is the original. (pdf)  It is also reproduced below.

Based on reading the letter in its entirety, there is no way to reach any other conclusion that a full court press in the works to eliminate NASA’s second Commercial Crew provider (by score, SpaceX) and shift some of “savings” into the SLS/Orion budget to achieve a ISS “backup” capacity which is as wildly impractical as it is utter unaffordable. Some may consider it delusional as well.

Of particular note is the following question:

  1. If Orion was capable of providing competition to servicing ISS, is the full budget request for the Commercial Crew program necessary?

It would certainly require an interesting interpretation of the word “competition.” With Boeing launching its own capsule, CST-100, aboard a booster built by a Boeing and Lockheed Martin partnership (ULA) or a Lockheed Martin built capsule, Orion, launched aboard a Boeing built booster, SLS, (with a little help from ATK) “competition” is not the first word which comes to mind.

Approaching as were are, Halloween, perhaps a metaphor is order.

Zombie movies are all the rage these days, and to anyone coming from a NewSpace perspective unfolding right now is a Zombie Apocolypse in space, in which Project Constellation is rising from dead. Mindless, insatiable and nearly unstoppable. It is only appropriate therefore, that the letter hints at yet another attempt (question #4) to remove one of the taxpayer’s most effective weapons against failing programs, Potential Termination Liability (PTL)  obligations, which requires a certain percentage of funds to be held in reserve by contractors to cover close-out costs in place a program is canceled. Space state representatives would very much like to exempt SLS/Orion from those provisions as evidenced by this proposed bill from another House member, Mo Brooks of Alabama.

To sum it up, it appears some key Republicans would very much like to free up more funding for SLS/Orion by eliminating the PTL obligations, and then use the notional ISS backup provision in the original 2010 Authorization to free up even more funding for SLS by reverting to a single Commercial Crew provider which doubtlessly the authors assume would be Boeing.

The real question is whether or not NASA, (presumable Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier and a review panel) would have the will or the fortitude to stand up to what appears to be unrelenting political pressure and either eliminate Boeing to begin with based on price, or rebid the contract under the new one winner scenario.   Were that to happen, SpaceX’s best bet, and the hopes of the NewSpace community, might reside in exploiting what has always been the Boeing proposal’s weakest link, other than price, reliance on the Atlas V’s Russian built main RD-180 main engine. Significantly, in putting out guidelines for the next round of ISS cargo resupply bids, NASA stressed that domestic sourcing and political vulnerability of key components would be taken into account.

One thing SpaceX can do to help its cause, particularly if the upcoming elections result in a Republican takeover of the Senate, is complete an upcoming Pad Abort Test with flying colors, and then back it up ASAP with an equally successful in-flight abort test now scheduled for the first quarter of 2015. If Elon Musk’s company achieves both goals before budget negotiations begin, the NASA would likely have all the cover it needs to make a sole source award to SpaceX, and still withstand a possible Boeing protest.

Make no mistake, the revolution in commercial spaceflight embodied by both SpaceX and Orbital Sciences performance in NASA’s COTS and CRS programs, and in particular what it could mean for a new era of public/private cooperation is in jeopardy of a serious setback, at what might have been its biggest moment yet. At stake is not the ultimate outcome, but it is enough, more years, and maybe even decades, wasted in a futile retread of a failed paradigm.

Here is the letter:






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3 Comments on "Update: NewSpace V. Old Ways and SpaceX in Congressional Crosshairs"

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  1. I continue to believe that SpaceX was the likely #1 choice of CCtCap, not Boeing. This is based on the fact that of the three criteria (cost, suitability, and past performance) cost was supposed to account for 50% of the scoring. Since it is obvious that SpaceX beats Boeing by roughly 2-to-1 on that criterion, even though Boeing edged out SpaceX on the other two, the overall winner should still be SpaceX, and by a wide margin.

    Therefore, if Reps. Smith and Palazzo really want to pursue a scheme of dropping one of the CCtCap winners to save costs, it’s much more likely Boeing would be the victim of their interference, not SpaceX.

  2. J. L. Turriff says:

    Keith, assuming that everything is above the board, your surmise is reasonable; but Boeing is a long-time government contractor, while SpaceX is the new boy on the block, so I’m less than convinced that things would go the way you might expect.

  3. Art says:

    It can be argued that the CST-100, while still not named, is the LEO version of Orion. It’s built by an Orion contractor & can use most of the materials developed for Orion if needed. I wouldn’t be surprised if Boeing named it Orion LEO. Then, brought back the company USA(United Space Alliance) with Lockheed, to launch both the LEO & BEO versions of the Orion vehicle. Just another opinion.

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