Garver: Fomenting Commercial Spaceflight Industry is a Top NASA Priority

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LAS CRUCES, N.M. — NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said jumpstarting a commercial human spaceflight industry is among the agency’s highest priorities, and cited current programs for delivering crews and cargo to the international space station as tangible progress toward that goal.

Speaking Oct. 17 here at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight, Garver counted the commercial crew and cargo initiatives among NASA’s most important accomplishments since she and her boss, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, arrived in July 2009.

Garver said these programs, in which NASA would pay private operators to fly missions previously handled by the U.S. government, were designed to “support the extension of [the space station] and develop a private human spaceflight industry in this country. Yes, in fact that is one of our absolute goals.”

Her remarks, delivered just a couple of weeks ahead of the U.S. general elections, would appear to contradict the sentiments of one prominent lawmaker whose support for the commercialization program is based solely on its potential to restore independent U.S. crew access to the space station.

As Garver spoke, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), the Hawthorne, Calif., space startup founded by Elon Musk, had its Dragon cargo capsule berthed with the station in the first paid logistics run under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program. That contract, valued at $1.6 billion, calls for a dozen logistics runs to the orbital outpost.

SpaceX has ambitions to launch astronauts as well. The company garnered a $440 million share of the $1.2 billion NASA awarded in August to mature competing designs for privately operated crew transportation systems. Boeing Space Exploration of Houston and Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colo., also got a share of that award.

Some members of Congress, notable among them Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), have expressed skepticism about NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programs. Wolf chairs the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that sets NASA’s annual funding levels.

Earlier this year Wolf’s subcommittee threatened to block NASA’s plan to divide $1.2 billion among multiple competing crew transportation development efforts over a 21-month period. The so-called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability program is aimed at getting at least one privately operated astronaut taxi flying by 2017.

Wolf argued that NASA should dispense with the additional round of funding for competing development concepts and immediately select a single design for full-scale development.

In June, Wolf announced in a press release that he had dropped his opposition to multiple awardees after securing an affirmation from NASA administrator Charles Bolden that “the primary objective of the commercial crew program is achieving the fastest, safest and most cost-effective means of domestic access to the [space station], not the creation of a commercial crew industry.”

Jill Shatzen, a spokeswoman for Wolf, did not immediately reply to a request for comment about Garver’s remarks here.

One industry advocate here openly embraced NASA‘s plan to seed private U.S. space companies.

“The [National Aeronautics and Space] Act of 1958, and every policy statement since then from the White House has said that it’s part of NASA’s mission, and part of the entire government’s space mission, to foster commercial space,” said Robert Dickman, outgoing executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “So those who say that NASA shouldn’t be doing that just have it wrong.”

Dickman, a retired U.S. Air Force major general, is leaving the Reston, Va.-based professional association after seven years in the top spot. He will be replaced by former NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus.