Frustration grows as lawmakers continue to penny pinch commercial crew

by Chris Bergin

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program – one of the Agency’s key near-term priorities – is once again battling against proposed funding cuts, following the House Appropriations Committee approval of their Commerce, Justice, Science FY 2014 Appropriations Bill. The report that accompanies the bill proposes a funding reduction and a change to Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contracts.

Commercial Crew:

The United States – the most powerful nation on Earth and the world leader in space – has been unable to launch its own astronauts from American soil since the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet.

A gap between the end of the 30 year career of the orbiters and the follow-on program – initially the Constellation Program (CxP) – was always on the cards, with NASA’s budget simply unable to cover the overlap.

Orion to the ISSHowever, that gap – based on Orion taking over crewed flights to the International Space Station (ISS) prior to its natural transition to becoming a Beyond Earth Orbit (BEO) exploration vehicle – began to widen, despite the end date for Shuttle stretching past its initial 2010 end date.

With technical issues between Orion and its launch vehicle, Ares I – compounded by a reduction in the Constellation Program budget – President Obama’s administration opted to cancel the struggling program, installing a commercial drive to provide cargo and crew transportation to the ISS,

allowing NASA to focus the majority of its then-released Shuttle budget on developing an exploration program.

With NASA financially supporting the handover of Low Earth Orbit to commercial companies, the Agency eventually began development of the Space Launch System (SLS), an evolving rocket that would be able to launch Orion and large payloads to BEO destinations.

Dragon at the ISS via L2's "unpublished" collectionThe initial part of this transition has already successfully begun, with SpaceX now preparing for its third Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) mission to the ISS – the fourth visit of their Dragon spacecraft to the orbital outpost – while Orbital are expected to debut their Cygnus spacecraft’s test mission to the Station this summer.

With no domestic capability to launch NASA astronauts, the Agency turned to the Russians, buying seats on Soyuz spacecraft to ensure a continuous US presence on the Space Station. The use of Russian transportation was always supposed to be a short term arrangement, bridging the gap between the end of Shuttle and the initiation of Commercial Crew flights from US soil.

However, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program – which has been providing funding alongside private sector investment – failed to push the commercial suitors into a timeline that would have seen NASA astronauts ride uphill on US vehicles by the initially projected 2014-15 timeframe.

Snippet of ISS long term manifest, via L2Continued lack of full funding has since resulted in the first flight of NASA astronauts on a commercial vehicle – known as USCV-1 (US Crew Vehicle -1) – delayed to the end of 2017, with the threat of a further slip should funding continue to be less than required.

The irony behind these political decisions to “save” money, by pressuring the Commercial Crew Program, has resulted in NASA having to renegotiate extensions to their arrangement with the Russians for crew transportation, at a cost of several hundred million dollars.

Also, the delay to the opening flights of astronauts on commercial vehicles also stretches out the removal of the commercial crew budget line, which – once the transportation begins – would become part of the ISS’ budget line.

Meanwhile, in a sign of how stretched NASA’s budget is with regard to its suite of programs, lawmakers continue to insist on a level protection to the budgets of some of the other Agency flagship programs, such as the troublesome James Webb Space Telescope.

The opening members of the SLS familyMost notable is SLS and Orion’s large funding cycle, which will have reached around $10 billion by the time the monster rocket debuts in 2017 on its Exploration Mission -1 test flight.

The 2017 launch date is technically premature for SLS’ long-term goals, installed in the 2010 Authorization Act as a date required to provide back up for ISS crew transportation, in the event Commercial Crew suffers from delays or major issues.

This wholly unsuitable scenario would result in the Heavy Lift Launch Vehicle (HLV) lofting Orion on a trip to the ISS, with SLS so overpowered for the LEO task it would have to include ballast as part of the upmass, according to the latest Concept Of Operations (CONOPS) document, available in L2.

SLS’ first crew mission, per its exploration mandate, would only occur around four years later, resulting in the HLV – and its workforce – eating through several billion dollars while awaiting the Exploration Mission -2 (EM-2) launch.

SLS Manifest, via L2While this initial EM-1/EM-2 opening salvo manifest was initially classed as the “worst case scenario”, no movement has been made to change the schedule, while at the same time Commercial Crew’s schedule continues to slip.

Although the 2013 Authorization Act is still being deliberated by lawmakers, the House Appropriations Committee has approved an appropriation bill, which would result in additional stresses on the Commercial Crew Program.

The House’s Appropriation bill should be consistent with the House’s NASA Authorization bill which was approved by the House’s full committee on science, space and technology on Thursday.

The House Appropriations Committee spending bill would result in NASA gaining $16.6 billion in the next fiscal year, $1.1 billion below the administration’s request.

“The overriding purpose of the Commercial Crew Program (CCP) is to restore domestic access to the International Space Station (ISS) as quickly and safely as possible, and the Committee expects that NASA will manage CCP funds in a manner that is consistent with that goal,” notes the Report of the House version of the bill.

“This will require pursuing all development and certification work beyond the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) base period through Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR)-based contracts; making strategic decisions about the number of industry partners to retain in the certification phase; and finding ways to incentivize greater private investment by industry partners in order to reduce the government’s financial obligations for the program.

“At the recommended level, NASA will be able to support all remaining costs for the CCiCap base period and the Certification Products Contracts; all annual program support costs; and a portion of the Commercial Crew Certification Contracts phase, which is not estimated to begin until the summer of 2014.”

Crew boarding Dream Chaser, via L2The proposal – which ultimately calls for a further reduction in Commercial Crew funding and a change to way NASA contracts the commercial crew companies – has been met with dismay in some sectors.

“Less funding for the commercial crew program simply equates to prolonged dependence on foreign launch providers,” noted Commercial Spaceflight Federation President, Michael Lopez-Alegria. “As a nation, we should be doing our utmost to regain the capability of putting astronauts in orbit on American vehicles as soon as possible.”

The CSF also reiterated that Congress and the Administration have consistently identified commercial providers as a cost-effective, safe and reliable source of routine flights to low-Earth orbit… (that) will enable American providers to cut dependence on the Russian Soyuz for crewed access to the International Space Station, a facility that American taxpayers have invested billions to build.

The organization also cited that NASA currently pays Moscow more than $60 million per seat to access the ISS, a price that will rise above $70 million in the next few years.

The three main contenders for providing Commercial Crew capabilities to NASA include SpaceX – who have noted they are driven to progress towards manned Dragon flights in reaction to a question from on potential impacts from uncertain NASA funding support.

CST-100Boeing’s CST-100 spacecraft is also in the mix, although they are understood to be closely monitoring the funding scenarios, with sources (L2) claiming they are, as a result of this uncertainty, still holding back on signing the full long-term deal with Space Florida for the use of the former Orbiter Processing Facility (OPF-3) – now known as the Commercial Crew and Cargo Processing Facility (C3PF).

The third funding player is Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), who are currently testing their Engineering Test Article (ETA) Dream Chaser at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California.

All three companies face the uncertainty of losing their NASA funding via a future down-select, with SpaceX classed as the current leader in the end goal of ferrying NASA astronauts to the ISS.

(Images: NASA and L2 Content)

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