NASA Throws Down the Gauntlet on Commerial Crew


Although the official introduction of a proposed mission to capture an asteroid and bring it to the Earth Moon L-2 point captured most of the media attention surrounding the unveiling of NASA’s FY 2014 budget request yesterday, arguably the most important item on the agenda remains the future of the Commercial Crew program.

In a press conference held after the budget was unveiled,  NASA Administrator Charles Bolden cautioned that if the Commercial Crew program is not fully funded this year at the requested amount, $821.4 million,   his agency “cannot do it (first launch to ISS)  in 2017 if we go below that number.”  The timing is particularly relevant because the ISS program is presently only secured through 2020, and if it is not extended, the case for new transport systems becomes very uncertain.  Alternatively,  actually developing an affordable, domestic crew transport capability, along with already proven cargo capacity, becomes a powerful tool in both extending the life of the station and creating options for reducing ongoing operations costs post 2020.

Bolden then went on to point out that the Commercial Crew request is a development item and does not represent an ongoing sustained expense at the level submitted for FY 2014,  but instead after holding at the same amount for 2015 and 2016, decreases to $590 million in 2017, and $371 million in 2018.  After that point, funding for the purchase of commercial launch services to ISS would come from the separate Space Operations account.

Although he did not draw out the contrast,  the difference both past and future compared to the budget path for  SLS and the Orion MPCV, which has been unscathed over the same time frame, yet extends well into the future at a much higher level, currently at $2.7 billion, is unmistakable.  Also hard to miss, two completely different space space capsules and a maybe even a bonus space plane, all in less time and at vastly less expense than the Orion capsule  alone.

For reasons that are almost impossible to conceptualize as being in the national interest,  Congress has slashed the Commercial Crew program request at every opportunity since the program was introduced, and has done little to conceal the fact that its actions were motivated by a desire to protect the Space Launch System and Orion at all costs.  As a result, it has established an atmosphere of antagonism which is both unproductive and completely unnecessary.  Following yesterday’s polite, but firm warning from General Bolden,  the gauntlet is down, and a significant component of  America’s future manned spaceflight capacity, as well as its overall  depth and scope, is hanging in the balance.  If Congress again declines to support the program at the levels requested,  then NASA program administrators, as well as its industry partners will face difficult decisions, with the primary beneficiary being Russia.  Also standing to lose,  the Inspiration Mars Foundation which has a very narrow time frame within which to put together a mission launching in 2018.

Looking back on yesterday,  one hopes that in putting forward the asteroid retrieval proposal, which has been generally well received, NASA has not inadvertently handed Congress a shiny new bauble for SLS, and provided cover for a final, crippling reduction in the Commercial Crew program which holds so much potential in leveraging its capacity to expand space commerce.

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2 Comments on "NASA Throws Down the Gauntlet on Commerial Crew"

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  1. “For reasons that are almost impossible to conceptualize as being in the national interest, Congress has slashed the Commercial Crew program request at every opportunity since the program was introduced, and has done little to conceal the fact that its actions were motivated by a desire to protect the Space Launch System and Orion at all costs.”
    You state this succinctly and with restraint. As long as ATK (solid fuel boosters) and LockMart (Orion)’s lobbyists keep Sens Shelby and Nelson acting *against* the national interest, this ludicrous situation will not change.
    Spike MacPhee

  2. Gary Warburton says:

    It should be obvious to everyone what is happening when you see that cheaper private space launchers with innovations toward reusable launchers is being thwarted in every way in favor of expensive cost plus contracts old space which costs billions. The GOP just doesn`t want new space (something Obama has been pushing) to succeed. This would make them look bad. It is equally apparent what has to be done to fix things give the public a voice in the matter. That`s right give the public a voice through an elected nonpartisan peoples advocate with the power to call for a plebiscite on a matter to ensure partisan politicians do not hold government in gridlock, that way the people would decide. We all could use more of that.

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