Editorial | A Feckless Blame Game on ISS Crew Access

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U.S. lawmakers are understandably concerned these days about NASA’s continued reliance on Russia for international space station crew transport, but their attempts to lay blame on the agency and the White House rest heavily on distortions of fact, some of them blatant.

Perhaps the biggest whopper came from Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Science space subcommittee, who in a statement released April 4 cited U.S. President Barack Obama’s cancellation of NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program as the cause. “When the Obama Administration ended the Constellation program, our nation was forced to depend upon Russian rockets to carry American astronauts into space and maintain a U.S. presence on the International Space Station (ISS),” the lawmaker said.

That statement is more than disingenuous — it’s flat-out false. As anyone who’s been paying attention for the last 10 years knows, temporary reliance on Russia for space station crew access was built into former U.S. President George W. Bush’s blueprint for transitioning from NASA’s space shuttle, which he correctly marked for retirement following the 2003 Columbia disaster, and Constellation. 

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Even had Mr. Obama embraced Constellation, NASA would still be dependent on Russia because under Mr. Bush’s plan, vehicles for space station crew transport would not have been ready before 2015 or 2016. 

During an April 8 NASA budget hearing, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) suggested NASA would at least be close to restoring crew access had Constellation continued, but that runs counter to the findings of an independent panel chaired by former Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine, which concluded that the necessary vehicles would not be ready before 2017. Moreover, that scenario assumed the space station, along with its yearly operations and maintenance bill, would be scuttled in 2016.

Meanwhile, one of Mr. Palazzo’s colleagues on the space subcommittee, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), said during a March 27 hearing that the Obama administration could have reversed the decision to retire the space shuttle, which was mothballed in 2011. But by the time Mr. Obama took office in 2009 — he didn’t cancel Constellation until the following year — the dismantling of the space shuttle enterprise, including infrastructure, production chains and personnel, was well underway. Reversing that, while theoretically possible, would have cost untold billions of dollars and condemned NASA to another decade — at least — of reliance on an outdated system with safety issues and no ability to support human exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit.

The administration’s loudest critics — most of whom hail from states heavily invested in the congressionally mandated and shuttle-derived Space Launch System and Orion deep-space crew capsule — have drawn a bead on the Commercial Crew Program, NASA’s bid to restore independent U.S. crew access to the station. These lawmakers complain that the program is siphoning funds from SLS and Orion and note that it is behind schedule.

True, the commercial crew taxis were supposed to begin operating in 2015 — the target date is now late 2017 — but it’s also true that their development has been consistently and substantially underfunded by Congress.  

During the April 8 hearing, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, tried to argue otherwise, saying Congress has consistently funded the program at the authorized level. That may be true, but there’s a big difference between NASA authorization bills — in recent years they’ve been drafted by SLS and Orion supporters — and NASA budget requests, which reflect the agency’s best estimate of what it will take to execute a program on schedule. The fact is, Congress has provided just $2 billion of the $3 billion NASA requested for the Commercial Crew Program from its 2011 start date through 2014, a 33 percent shortfall.

Thus NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has something concrete to point to — and never misses an opportunity to do so — when questioned about delays to the program. By suggesting that commercial crew simply hasn’t delivered, lawmakers divert attention from the fact that NASA likely could have such a service available more quickly, and perhaps at less cost, if it dropped its insistence on keeping at least two providers in the competitive mix. 

Those who bemoan NASA’s reliance on Russia, yet shortchange the very program designed to fix that problem, are at the same time adamant that the agency spend nearly $3 billion per year on SLS and Orion, vehicles that for all their advertised capability still have no place to go. Their size and cost make them poorly suited for space station missions, even as a backup to commercial crew taxis, and in any case the first SLS-Orion crewed test flight won’t happen before 2021.

NASA currently lacks an independent crew launching capability because of decisions made a decade ago, the consequences of which were fully understood and accepted at the time. The longer this situation lasts, however, the more culpable the current group of decision-makers will become. 

In that vein, the current criticisms of NASA and the White House might be viewed as a pre-emptive strike by lawmakers who sense their own culpability. But in pressing arguments that fail to stand up to even modest scrutiny, they not only undermine their credibility, they give NASA cover to pursue a Commercial Crew Program approach that might not be sustainable.  

If restoring independent U.S. access to station is as important as the administration’s congressional detractors say, they should fully fund the Commercial Crew Program, even if that means slowing development work on SLS and Orion, while ratcheting up the pressure on NASA to select a single provider. Only then can Congress truly say it has done its part to resolve the matter.

 

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