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Science Committee Hearings on NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program Highlight Uncertainties

Richard M. Jones
Number 134 - November 11, 2011  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has held a series of hearings this fall about the new direction that NASA is taking in its human spaceflight program.  A common theme in all three hearings has been varying degrees of skepticism about the new approach the program is taking.

The latest hearing focused on NASA’s commercial crew development program.  The first panel of witnesses at this October 26 hearing were senior executives from The Boeing Company, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, ATK Launch Systems Group, and United Launch Alliance.  They all expressed confidence in their ability to safely transport NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.  Their ability to do so on schedule depends, as was heard repeatedly during this hearing, on “adequate funding” from Congress.

The outlook for “adequate funding” in FY 2012 is not promising.  Early this year, NASA requested $850 million for its commercial crew program for FY 2012.  House appropriators recommended $312 million in their funding bill, while the Senate bill included $500 million.  A final FY 2012 bill is scheduled to come to the House and Senate floors next week.  If this bill provides $500 million it will be less than 60 percent of what the Administration requested.  NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier testified that this level of FY 2012 funding would result in a one year delay in achieving the Administration’s goal of flying astronauts to the station in 2016.  With many details still to be settled, Gerstenmaier said NASA estimates it will eventually spend $4 to $6 billion in its commercial crew development program, much of which will be provided to one or two companies.  To date, the program has spent $320 million.

While many concerns were expressed by both Democrats and Republicans, there are two overriding issues.  The first is whether there is a viable market for commercial human spaceflight services.  Each of the senior executives assured the committee that such a market exists.  Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) spoke about this market in his opening statement:

“If indeed industry can perform safely and profitably, and at substantially less cost, then I will be the first to congratulate them and NASA. My hesitance though, is based on the very thin evidence provided to date by NASA that this new business model is well understood and that it can succeed. I have yet to be convinced that there is a sufficient commercial market that will sustain multiple private, for-profit commercial crew companies through the duration of America’s commitment to the International Space Station [ISS]. NASA seemingly takes the position of ‘build it and they will come’; that by starting these companies first, business will soon follow.

“Some say the business case is not very compelling, at least for those companies intending on using NASA as an anchor customer. Assuming two commercial companies will be certified by the end of 2016, at two flights a year for four years based on NASA’s projections, government may need only eight flights. That’s four flights per company, probably at a rate of one a year.

“The number may grow if ISS is extended, but there’s no guarantee. Four flights to recover some significant portion of sunk investment, coupled with the goal to price the service at a rate that doesn’t dwarf the cost now charged by Russia, suggests to me a perilous business proposition. I think that NASA owes Congress and the laudable companies that are before us today a much more thorough assessment of the situation ahead. These companies have invested millions of dollars and Congress has committed millions more -- it is time for NASA to deliver credible plans and analysis so that we can move forward with more confidence.

“What I do not want to see happen is putting government in the position of stepping in to salvage one or several failing companies in order to preserve a national capability. Many of us are well aware of the debacle that confronted the Air Force with its EELV program, and this committee is not prepared to let NASA repeat that mistake. To paraphrase my friend and former Chairman of this Committee, Bart Gordon, I don’t want to find ourselves at some future time throwing additional sums in this program because the commercial launch companies are ‘too important to fail.’

“For all my seeming skepticism, I am willing to be convinced that I’m wrong, and I hope I’m wrong. I want the private markets to relieve NASA of the cost and burden of building a new launch system for low Earth orbit. But as I said a minute ago, NASA must do more to address these important questions, and it’s our role as the Committee of jurisdiction to ensure that whatever path we ultimately take, government’s investment will be well understood and well spent.”

The second major issue raised by several Members involves the economics of the new program.  Many Members of Congress have expressed disappointment in the years-long gap between the retirement of the space shuttles and the inauguration of a new U.S. system to fly astronauts to the space station.  Yet there is concern about the cost to develop this hardware for what could be a limited number of years until the space station’s retirement in 2020.  The committee’s Ranking Member, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) discussed this in her opening statement:

“commercial crew would reduce - but not eliminate - dependence on Russia for International Space Station-related goods and services. NASA estimates that the cost to the U.S. government to purchase Russian crew transportation and rescue services would be about $450 million a year from 2016 to 2020, or a total of about $1.8 billion for those four years.”

Note that Gerstenmaier testified that 2016 is the “timeframe” when it might be possible for commercial services to transport astronauts to the station, although several of the corporate officials predicted they would be ready before then.   Johnson continued:

“NASA and others have argued that the commercial crew initiative will help create a new commercial crew space transportation industry with a wide range of private and public customers, thus lowering costs and allowing NASA to focus on deep space exploration.

“What are the costs of the initiative? Last week, NASA’s Deputy Administrator was quoted as saying that ‘we have an analysis that says we believe we would require $6 billion over five years’ to develop the commercial crew systems.

“I have to take the Deputy Administrator at her word, as NASA still has not provided Congress with the basis for its commercial crew budget requests since the initiative was first announced almost two years ago -- though I find it unsettling that the $6 billion estimate is almost $2 billion more than the amount actually bookkept for commercial crew in the NASA five-year budget plan that was submitted to Congress in February of this year.

“Now that $6 billion is just to develop the systems. Perhaps we will hear otherwise today, but all of the information provided by NASA to date indicates that it believes that the U.S. commercial crew systems will be ‘competitive’ with the Russian Soyuz in price per seat but not significantly cheaper. So, at this point it looks like NASA will still be paying roughly the same amount to commercial crew providers through 2020 that it would be to the Russians.

“As a result, I and other Members will have to decide whether it is worth paying a $6 billion premium in taxpayer dollars in order to have a domestic ISS commercial crew capability available to replace the Russian system for a four-year period -- assuming the U.S. commercial crew systems are certified operational by 2016. Now I would rather not pay money to the Russians either, but I will find it very hard to justify to my constituents spending an extra $6 billion to transport our astronauts to the ISS for a limited amount of time unless I can also credibly argue that doing so will open up a broad new competitive market in commercial crew transportation for American industry.”

Many of these issues and uncertainties will not be settled for several years, and will largely be beyond the control of Congress.  Of more immediate concern to NASA and its ability to keep its schedule on track is the amount of funding for the commercial crew program that is contained in the FY 2012 appropriations bill that Congress will be voting on next week.  Said Gerstenmaier, “We need the appropriate funding for this challenging program.”

Richard M. Jones
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics