Commentary | Commercial Crew Needs Competition
The SpaceNews editorial “A Feckless Blame Game on ISS Crew Access” [April 14, page 18] defends NASA’s Commercial Crew Program against disingenuous attacks by its congressional opponents. We support many of the points made in the editorial, especially the assertion that the failure of Congress to fully fund Commercial Crew as requested by the White House is the major reason for delays in the date Americans can start flying on American rockets to the international space station. However, we take issue with the suggestion that a down-select to a single Commercial Crew provider is desirable.
We strongly recommend that the following considerations guide the Commercial Crew Program:
- A minimum of two complete, technologically independent commercial crew systems should be brought to operational status. Commercial Crew can only be fully successful with real competition between multiple U.S.-based service providers.
- The value of Commercial Crew lies not just in providing the means of transporting astronauts to the ISS without relying on Russian spacecraft, but also in significantly strengthening the U.S. commercial orbital access industry.
There has long been a strain of criticism in Congress that calls for an immediate down-select in Commercial Crew to a single contractor in the name of saving money and moving forward more rapidly. Traditionally, NASA has run “competitive” procurement processes in which a number of proposals are considered, and then one is chosen to be developed into a flight article. This approach, although a reasonable one for experimental or some operational vehicles, is not the best approach for building a new industry.
The traditional NASA approach has the effect of the system or service ultimately being supplied by a single “monopoly” vehicle from a single vendor, and provides no competition that would work to lower costs over time. Commercial Crew, like the Commercial Resupply Services program, is intended to create a situation in which NASA has multiple, independent methods of transportation to and from the ISS. Two fully independent U.S.-based providers combined with occasional use of the Russian Soyuz would be the minimum system to put real competitive pressures on all vendors.
A highly desirable characteristic of a fully successful Commercial Crew Program is the operational availability of two technologically and financially independent solutions. For example, selecting the Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser/Atlas 5 and the Boeing CST-100/Atlas 5 introduces a single point of failure, the Atlas 5. It would be equally risky to select as the two solutions the Dream Chaser/Falcon 9 and theDragon/Falcon 9 for the same reason.
In the approved 2014 budget, language exists holding back $171 million of the allocated Commercial Crew funding until the NASA administrator certifies an independent cost-benefit analysis of the program. It should be noted that this level of scrutiny — an independent cost-benefit analysis — is not being applied to other NASA programs such as the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule.
It is possible to alter the outcome of a cost-benefit analysis via careful selection of underlying assumptions. In the case of a cost-benefit analysis of Commercial Crew, key areas to consider are the operational lifetime of the ISS, the probability that the ISS will be followed by a similar base in low Earth orbit, and the crew size of the ISS.
The Obama administration is proposing an ISS extension for an additional four years, meaning that the anticipated Commercial Crew operations would be extended to 2024. It is very likely, and indeed highly desirable, that the life of the ISS will be extended well beyond this date. NASA has certified that an extension to 2028, an additional four years beyond that just proposed, is possible without major efforts.
The Chinese have announced that their large China Space Station will become operational in the 2020-2024 time frame, and they are currently seeking international partners. It is difficult to imagine that the United States will at just that moment deorbit the ISS, abandoning space research in low Earth orbit to the Chinese.
Thus all analysis of Commercial Crew value should be based on the realistic assumption that: the ISS lifetime is significantly extended beyond 2020; the ISS is replaced with a follow-on U.S./international/commercial station; and/or Commercial Crew vehicles will continue to be used to transport crew to low Earth orbit in support of other future NASA projects, such as assembly of a Mars ship from multiple launches. In all of these scenarios, low-cost, specialized and reliable transport of crew to low Earth orbit will be of continuing value to NASA.
The current size of the ISS crew is limited to six, since only two Soyuz “lifeboats” can dock to the ISS at the same time, and each Soyuz can carry only three astronauts. The introduction of Commercial Crew vehicles that can carry up to seven astronauts allows for expansion of the ISS capabilities to support a crew of up to 14.
Even the use of a single Commercial Crew vehicle would allow for an expansion from six to seven, something that would significantly increase the scientific return from the ISS. The ISS can accommodate one additional long-term crew member with minimal effort.
The ISS also can accommodate multiweek “surges” of additional crew members, as was demonstrated during the shuttle program. Thus, Commercial Crew vehicles could expand the output of the ISS by periodically allowing teams of, for example, five scientists accompanied by two crew members, to live on the ISS for weeks at a time. It is expected that expansion to a permanent crew of 14 might require additional facilities to be added to the ISS. Finally, it should be noted that the number of astronauts on the Commercial Crew vehicles significantly affects the cost per seat. Arbitrary limits of, for example, four astronauts per vehicle artificially increase the cost per seat by a large factor.
The Commercial Crew Program offers the potential to build the foundation for a true private crewed orbital access industry. In the past, the U.S. government has supported the development of new industries in various ways, ranging from federal airmail contracts supporting early aviation to current nanotechnology research centers. The crewed orbital access industry involves not just space tourism but also satellite repair and refueling, industrial research and private commercial space stations. Commercial Crew is a key enabler of this new industry, and can significantly contribute to strengthening the larger U.S. space access industry, which has vast potential for the creation of large numbers of well-paying American jobs.
Strong industries must have competition. A major advantage of the nature of the Commercial Crew Program is that the competitive environment keeps costs low and forces each competitor to seek other markets for its solution. But the development of alternative markets is also related to the timely success of the Commercial Crew
Program. Companies such as Bigelow Aerospace have flown multiple orbital test vehicles to demonstrate some of the technologies that they are planning to deploy to create inflatable private space stations. At one point, delays in the readiness of Commercial Crew vehicles led Bigelow to lay off a substantial portion of its workforce to conserve capital. Although Bigelow has since won a contract to attach an inflatable module to the ISS, its commercial space station plans remain in a holding pattern until the Commercial Crew Program moves to operational status.
We strongly endorse the $848 million 2015 NASA budget request for Commercial Crew, along with the $250 million supplemental request. At a time when the availability of the Russian-supplied Soyuz is being increasingly questioned, we need to move Commercial Crew to the top of NASA’s priority list.
Dr. Paul Werbos is executive vice president and chairman of the National Space Society’s Policy Committee, and Dale Skran is deputy chairman of the committee. A longer version of this article is at http://www.nss.org/legislative/positions/NSS_Position_Paper_Commercial_Crew_2014.pdf.