Commercial Crew Still Under Fire

Underfunded Again? Credit : NASA

Underfunded Again?
Credit : NASA

NASA’s Commercial Crew program continues to suffer the slings and arrows in this week’s passage of an Omnibus spending bill. After being badly underfunded for the third year in a row,  in early 2013 NASA Administrator Charles Bolden warned Congress that a failure to authorize the $821 million being requested as part of the FY2013 budget would mean the program could not meet a late 2017 first flight, and would have to purchase another round of missions from Russia.

Fast forward to this week. Although the total amount allocated for Commercial Crew in the overall $17.6 billion NASA budget fell well short of the amount Bolden requested, at $696 million it marked an improvement over the previous year’s $525 million. But Congress just could not leave it alone.  Included in authorization is a provision which withholds $171 million until the NASA Administrator certifies that an independent cost benefit analysis for the program has been performed, one which takes in to account the future of the International Space Station program.  In other words, until the analysis is complete, NASA’s budget for Commercial Crew falls right back to $525 million. Congress  has picked up the gauntlet thrown down by the Administrator and thrown it back at him.  Will he fight back?

Given that it may take some time, even several years for the International Partners to fully commit to extending the station’s life to 2024 as both NASA and the Obama Administration would like to do, any analysis, while perhaps not a bad idea in principle, is likely to be delayed, or so full of both caveats and genuine unknowns that its actual utility will be questionable at best.

And then there is the question of whether an independent analysis will take into account the very real, but also very unknown variable of SpaceX’s pursuit of re-usability for the Falcon 9-R. One could make the argument that given the likely cost of independently pursuing a re-usable booster program, (tens of billions of dollars) the benefit of receiving one for free partly as a result of the company being selected as a winner in Commercial Crew, justifies the entire program on that basis alone.  Don’t be surprised however, if it is not even mentioned.

What also is not going to be mentioned apparently,  is any similar stipulation that the far more expensive SLS/MPCV programs undergo a cost benefit analysis, or even a cost analysis for that matter. Or even asked to explain what it’s mission is.

Instead, coming in to what should be a definitive year for the Commercial Crew program, culminating in the selection of which company or companies are moving into the final phase, NASA faces a choice; whether to further throttle the entire program as it jumps through the hoops Congress has placed in front of it, or to keep its current schedule with a decision late this year, and necessarily down select to a single winner.

As if that weren’t enough, the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel weighed in this week with its annual report, which while more positive regarding the Commercial Crew program than it has been in the past, cautioned against a premature down select even as it chided policymakers for failing to provide the necessary funds.

Already three and half months into 2014 fiscal year, NASA faces a real dilemma. How it responds may tell us more about the manner in which Charles Bolden’s tenure as NASA Administrator will be regarded than any other item.  How Congress handles the upcoming FY 2015 budget request  will tell us just how ugly the battle will get.

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