NASA FY 2016 Budget Request Draws Battle Lines Over Commercial Crew

On Monday, the Obama Administration announced its proposed budget for FY 2016, a $4 trillion dollar (officially $3.999) spending tally which is certain to be contested by the new Republican Congress. As part of the day’s events, NASA Chief Financial Officer (CFO) David Radzanowski presented the space agency’s own $18.5 billion dollar slice of the pie, which marks a decided increase over last year’s $17.647 billion proposal. With the dollars going to key districts on Earth, spending for space can be an interesting exercise however, where for example, last year Congress appropriated more than the Administration requested, resulting in an actual NASA budget of just over $18 billion.

In watching this year’s version of America’s annual fiscal wrestling match, nothing will be more interesting than the reaction to Commercial Crew, where true to its word, NASA has thrown down the gauntlet with a $1.244 billion request in order to fully fund both Boeing and SpaceX in the hope that one or both will be operational before the end of 2017, If neither is, the next NASA administrator is going to have to pull out the checkbook to send more money to Russia.

Unlike traditional cost plus programs such as SLS, Orion, and JWST, where the funding seems to flow irrespective of performance, much depends on how both vendors live up to their respective milestones. Thus the point Radzonowski strove make, if both perform, then the bill is due. Congress, which after years of severely underfunding the program, belatedly appropriated close to the full request at $805 million to Commercial Crew for FY 2015, may see it differently. Adding fuel to the fire, the FY 2016 request for Exploration Systems, including SLS, Orion and Ground Systems, at $2.86 billion versus the $3.24 which was appropriated last year, is clearly going to be fodder for debate.

What is emerging then, is one of the final acts in the struggle of wills between NASA, which is firmly committed to the idea of two competing vendors, and the Congress, which has from the outset seen Commercial Crew as a threat to its favorite son, the Space Launch System and the Orion Capsule.

When asked during a question and answer session following its budget presentation how the agency would respond to a lower level of funding for Commercial Crew, NASA’s Radzonowski stated that the agency would have to renegotiate with its vendors, deciding which milestones to delay. In other words, the agency position appears to be that rather than select one provider as the “leader” and the other as “follower,” as Congress has suggested previously, it would be willing to see the entire program delayed and the checks to Russia resume. Is NASA bluffing?

Perhaps it is, but don’t count on Congress calling that bluff. The reason is a simple one. With a considerably higher bid price, dependence on a Russian main engine and a slower development schedule which does not include an ascent abort test, Boeing, the presumed Congressional favorite, would likely not be holding a winning hand. If forced to choose, and if it elected to do so, NASA would likely have little trouble justifying a modified “leader” award to SpaceX.

In that regard, SpaceX has done itself a favor in selecting a more aggressive milestone program under CCiCap than Boeing, where an “imminent” pad abort test of a Dragon 2 capsule which is much further along than Boeing’s CST-100, could serve as a powerful argument that in a one horse race, it is the indisputable choice. A successful first stage recovery, either with the upcoming February 8 launch of DSCOVR, or anytime before the budget is settled, would not hurt either.

Very much aware of that fact, Boeing has every incentive to use its considerable lobbying apparatus to encourage Congress to come reasonably close to matching the Administration’s full request for Commercial Crew, even as it inevitably showers more money on SLS/Orion than requested. If that is the case, the question becomes who, in addition to the long lived Mars Opportunity rover, which was zeroed out FY 2016, pays the price?

It should prove an interesting, if appalling debate.

Marcia Smith’s always informative budget fact sheet is here, and in case you have nothing better to do for awhile, the complete 657 page NASA request is here.



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1 Comment on "NASA FY 2016 Budget Request Draws Battle Lines Over Commercial Crew"

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  1. For what it’s worth, based on released NASA numbers and the stated 50% CCTCap weighting towards cost, I would put the final scoring on CCTCap as follows.

    1. “Past Performance” has five levels: Low, Moderate, High, Very High, and Excellent, with “Excellent” valued at 1000, declining by 200 for each level. By that measure, Boeing scored 800, while SpaceX and SNC scoring 600.
    2. Cost is converted to a 50% weighted score by taking the total scores of all competitors in the “Past Performance” and “Suitability” categories and multiplying by the sum of the reciprocals of the costs for all three competitors. That results in a costing factor, which is multiplied by the reciprocal of the cost for each competitor to arrive at a final costing score. Thus the sum of the costing scores will equal the sum of all other scores, a perfect 50% weighting.

    Under these assumptions, the final CCTCap scores would be:

    Boeing: Past Performance 800, Suitability 913, Cost 1177, TOTAL 2890.
    SpaceX: Past Performance 600, Suitability 849, Cost 2025, TOTAL 3474.
    SNC: Past Performance 600, Suitability 829, Cost 1389, TOTAL 2818.

    So you’re right, it’s not even close.

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