Commentary | Competition, Contracts and Commercial Spaceflight

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Watching Earth from the international space station, no political borders are visible, and one could imagine that the planet spins peacefully and without conflict below. But that notion vanishes when one turns to look inside. 

The coalition that built the ISS is 15 nations strong; the station is a Frankensteinian creation welded together from parts designed, built and launched by the United States, Russia, Japan, several European countries, Canada and others. Its existence is not a testament to the disappearance of boundaries between nations, but rather to the vision, hard work and delicate negotiations that enable nations to engage each other across boundaries.

Recently, the geopolitical conflict over Ukraine has reopened old wounds and stressed the fabric of that collaboration. U.S. and Russian trade and cooperation on space issues is at a new post-Cold War low, and the Russians have called into question their participation in the ISS after 2020, though the United States believes it should be used for research and development at least until 2024 and likely beyond. 

To be sure, several years remain before any real decisions would have to be made, and I hope and expect that the Russians will carefully consider their position. 

Right now, Moscow is in the critical path for a number of ISS activities. NASA should explore replacement options from commercial providers, including through a recent Request for Information titled “Evolving ISS into a LEO Commercial Market.” But perhaps the most crucial Russian responsibility is the transportation of crew (and significant cargo) to the station. 

NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program is now contracting with two American companies to supply cargo to ISS, and its Commercial Crew Program is progressing rapidly with hardware undergoing tests every month. Over several stages of competition, the commercial companies bidding to develop vehicles and provide services have been winnowed, and just a few competitors remain. Unfortunately, some in Congress have advocated for an immediate reduction to one supplier.

Even before the recent trouble with Russia, events had illustrated why that would be a bad idea. Russian rockets have suffered a series of failures, the most recent May 16. And being dependent on a partner for human access to space, a key NASA and defense capability, even when relations are good, is a bad place to be. If NASA were to award the final phase of Commercial Crew development to only one company, any problems with that vehicle would leave us once again dependent on Russia for access to the space station.

Of course, the benefits of competition are much broader than that. Competition between developers helps ensure that safety remains high, costs remain low and projects remain on schedule. Without competition, molehills, in the form of technical challenges that are inevitable in any high-tech development program, become mountains and schedules slip. With only one provider, when safety concerns develop, the customer may be forced to accept big hits to cost and/or schedule that could otherwise be refused in favor of a competitor’s alternative design. 

Competition is the key ingredient that enabled NASA’s Commercial Cargo Program to deliver vehicles for a fraction of the cost of previous programs, and it is also important for ensuring that NASA and other agencies have long-term, inexpensive access to orbit.

The House Appropriations Committee approved $785 million for the Commercial Crew Program in the appropriations bill it approved in May. That represents the highest level of funding that the committee has recommended, and though it still falls short of the $848.3 million requested by the president, the difference is much smaller than it has ever been. There is an emerging consensus that the program is a key priority for the country, and we must now make sure that it proceeds in a way that safeguards our human spaceflight program from the vagaries of international relations, ensures the best value, and makes the country space-launch-independent for decades to come.

 

Michael Lopez-Alegria is the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.