NASA’s Commercial Crew Catch 22 as another $424m heads to Russia

by Chris Bergin

NASA administrator Charlie Bolden emphasized the need for Congress to fully support funding for the Agency’s Commercial Crew Program, after signing a $424m extension for the use of Russian Soyuz vehicles to transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station. The deal, which reaches through to June 2017, is likely to receive further extensions.

Domestic Crew Capability:

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, NASA astronauts have been launched to the ISS on Russian Soyuz vehicles, a requirement that ensures the continuation of a US presence on a Station that was mainly funded and constructed by the United States.

While some argue the end of Shuttle was premature, the three orbiters successfully completed their unique role of hauling huge amounts of hardware and supplies to the orbital outpost, marking the start of a major transitional period for the US space agency.

The "21st Century" fleetWith the ISS moving from assembly to utilization, and the orbiters receiving an honorable retirement, NASA looked forward to refocusing Shuttle’s yearly cost of around $4.5 billion into a new fleet of commercial vehicles that would take over some of the Agency’s Low Earth Orbit (LEO) obligations, freeing the US to plan for a return to Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration.

On paper the plan appears to be a perfect mix of propelling commercial space into the Premier League of space missions – initially supplying cargo to the ISS, prior to launching NASA astronauts to the giant laboratory in the heavens – followed by NASA’s flagship missions to explore deep space as far as Mars, enabled by the world’s biggest launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS).

In reality, NASA’s $17-18 billion budget is spread over many projects, each of which tend to come with their own political backers, who then fight over how the NASA pie will be sliced up.

Antares launch via L2 engineering videoWhile NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) drive is up and running – with Orbital recently enjoying the successful debut launch of the Antares, ahead of Cygnus supply runs, and SpaceX already completing two CRS missions – the path towards the Commercial Crew missions to the ISS is suffering from funding concerns.

The initial plan aimed at regaining US domestic launch capability for NASA astronauts by around 2015.

Although the three main competitors involved in the Commercial Crew Program – SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) – are currently making good progress on their respective vehicles, the lower-than-requested levels of funding in the NASA budget over the past three years has resulted in the 2015 target slipping by at least two years.

SoyuzThe shortfall is “only” in the hundreds of millions of dollars per year, which is ironically about the same amount of money that is being sent to Roscosmos for the purchase of seats on the Soyuz – a scenario that has been once again extended, to June, 2017 – in order to cover the slip in the Commercial Crew Program’s Full Operational Capability (FOC) date.

“NASA has signed a $424 million modification to its contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) for full crew transportation services to the International Space Station in 2016 with return and rescue services extending through June 2017,” noted a NASA release on Tuesday, confirming a deal that had been known for several months.

“This firm-fixed price modification covers comprehensive Soyuz support, including all necessary training and preparation for launch, flight operations, landing and rescue of six space station crew members on long-duration missions. It also includes additional launch site support, which was provided previously under a separate contract.

“The modification will allow for a lead time of about three years Roscosmos needs to build additional Soyuz vehicles.”

This Catch 22 situation leaves General Bolden fighting to ensure funding for Commercial Crew isn’t once again starved during the FY13 Budget Proposal discussions, with the release relaying comments the NASA head has made many times previous.

“Full funding of the administration’s Fiscal Year 2014 budget request is critical to making these domestic capabilities possible by 2017.”

Long Term Schedule, via L2However, NASA planners appear to be resigned to the fact they will require Soyuz support through to the end of 2017, after a full one year slip was observed on the Flight Planning Integration Panel (FPIP) document, available in L2.

This first Commercial Crew mission to the ISS is known as US Crew Vehicle -1 (USCV-1), with a launch date now penciled in for November 30, 2017, followed by a docking on December 2, 2017.

The USCV-2 through to USCV-6 are shown to launch at intervals of six months, with a Russian Soyuz penciled in to provide a back up role “in the event the US Crewed Vehicle is unavailable” through to the USCV-4 mission in 2019.

Partly responsible for the funding constraints has been the large political support for SLS and Orion, which may also play a part of the bigger picture.

SLS with Orion on EM-1Per the 2010 Authorization Act, the language guided NASA to bringing SLS on line by 2017 – much earlier than the required per its primary role of lofting large upmass for deep space missions.

The reason 2017 was selected was partly related to the “back up” role of using Orion for NASA crew transportation to the ISS, in the event Commercial Crew suffered a major schedule delay.

The language was written at the time Commercial Crew was scheduled to begin in 2015, but with the ongoing slips, there is a slight possibility lawmakers may gaze towards what would be an overpowered 70mt SLS for an Orion mission to the ISS.

Orion at the ISSAlthough the ISS wasn’t mentioned, intimations towards Orion being initially used in LEO were recently made during the NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) meeting at the Goddard Space Flight Center, with panel member John Frost noting the “conservative” process would be to fly a crewed Orion mission in LEO before flying crewed Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2).

“However, this would require one more flight than is currently budgeted,” he added, before requesting he would “like to see the rationale for flying first-time crewed to BEO rather than LEO (and) the rationale for not flying flight-configuration before flying crew.”

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Flying the BEO-tasked Orion on an ISS mission would be last resort, with extending the Soyuz agreement likely to be the route NASA would take in the event of further delays to Commercial Crew. However, General Bolden states he is focused on avoiding further slips by stressing the need for stable funding, starting with FY13.

Crew boarding Dream Chaser“Three years ago, the Administration put forward a public-private partnership plan, the Commercial Crew Program (CCP), to ensure that American companies would be launching our astronauts from U.S. soil by 2015,” he wrote on Tuesday. “If NASA had received the President’s requested funding for this plan, we would not have been forced to recently sign a new contract with Roscosmos for Soyuz transportation flights.”

“Because the funding for the President’s plan has been significantly reduced, we now won’t be able to support American launches until 2017. Even this delayed availability will be in question if Congress does not fully support the President’s fiscal year 2014 request for our Commercial Crew Program, forcing us once again to extend our contract with the Russians.

“Further delays in our Commercial Crew Program and its impact on our human spaceflight program are unacceptable. That’s why we need the full $821 million the President has requested in next year’s budget to keep us on track to meet our 2017 deadline and bring these launches back to the United States.”

(Images: L2 Content and NASA)

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