WASHINGTON — After U.S. elections Nov. 6 left the balance of federal power essentially unchanged, NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program were spared the scrutiny of a new presidential administration only to return to a status quo defined mostly by long-standing funding uncertainties.

“An election like this one puts many things in Washington on hold,” said former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation here. “There remain many unanswered questions, including how sequestration and budget conversations will affect NASA.”

Lopez-Alegria is a self-described “card-carrying, Kool-Aid pouring believer” in the companies NASA is banking on to restore the manned spaceflight capability lost when the space shuttle program ended in July 2011. The organization he leads counts among its members all but one of the U.S. companies involved in NASA’s efforts to turn space station crew and cargo logistics over to operators of privately owned space transportation systems.

During President Barack Obama’s first four-year term, NASA leadership pushed hard to sell Congress on the agency’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program. That sales push is expected to begin anew when a still-divided Congress convenes in January.

Since 2010, when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives from Democrats, lawmakers from both parties have often agreed on one thing when it comes to NASA’s commercial human spaceflight programs: They do not need as much funding as the White House has sought.

Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters here, said that is likely to happen again in 2013.

If it does, the Commercial Crew Program, an initiative to get at least one privately operated astronaut taxi flying by 2017, will feel the pinch most acutely, having just started a 21-month development phase into which NASA plans to pour $1.1 billion in funding through May 2014.

“I think every year on this program we’ve had to replan because we didn’t get the requested amount, so I anticipate next year not being any different,” McAlister said Nov. 15 at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s Human Exploration and Operations Committee.

The $1.1 billion in Commercial Crew Integrated Capability awards NASA made in August to Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Sierra Nevada Corp. dwarfs the approximately $365 million NASA put into the first two rounds of the Commercial Crew Program from 2010 to 2011. In the third round, companies are expected to produce end-to-end transportation systems, including integrated crew and launch vehicles. The White House now says the program will need more than $800 million in annual funding from 2014 to 2017. Congress appropriated $406 million for commercial crew activities in 2012, less than half of the $830 million NASA requested for 2013. Earlier this year, House and Senate appropriations panels signaled a willingness to increase commercial crew funding to $525 million in 2013, but the appropriations process stalled during the summer as lawmakers turned their attention to the election. Before heading home to campaign, Congress passed a stopgap spending measure, called a continuing resolution, that funds federal agencies at current levels through March. Congressional sources have said in recent weeks that  odds are good that Congress — either in the lame duck session that wraps up Dec. 31 or early in the new Congress’ first session — would pass a full-year continuing resolution that would keep funding flat through Sept. 30, 2013.  In such an environment, NASA would be hard pressed to ramp up commercial crew funding.

In the meantime, sequestration — the deep across-the-board spending cuts that would take effect in January unless the president and Congress can reach a deficit reduction deal — threatens to suck $1.5 billion out of NASA’s $17.8 billion budget next year alone.

“Certainly if we get sequestration that’s going to be really a huge problem,” McAlister told the NASA Advisory Council. “Even a full-year [continuing resolution] is going to be a challenge for the Commercial Crew Program.”

To keep the program on track, NASA plans to award two or more Certification Products Contracts in February designed to allow the agency to ensure that the vehicles industry is developing to carry astronauts to the international space station meet NASA’s human safety standards.

McAlister said he could not comment on who might bid for these contracts, but he did say it was a “logical assumption” that the same companies funded under Commercial Crew Integrated Capability awards would seek certification-phase awards.

Because the Certification Products Contracts are not bound by the same restrictions as Space Act Agreements used for Commercial Crew Integrated Capability and earlier rounds of the program, NASA will be able to approve or reject the safety certification plans its contractors will produce under this program.

McAlister said NASA expects to award two to four Certification Products Contracts, and that each of these firm, fixed-price agreements will be worth $10 million and run through May 31, 2014. NASA expects to issue a solicitation for phase two Certification Products Contracts in September 2013. Only bidders who make it through phase one will be eligible for a phase two award, McAlister said. He said NASA has not decided exactly what the deliverables for phase two Certification Products Contract might be.

Cargo route

While the Commercial Crew Program is just beginning its primary development phase, NASA’s Commercial Cargo Program has moved into the operations phase.

SpaceX, one of two commercial cargo contractors, completed the first of its 12 contracted space station resupply runs Oct. 28, when its Dragon space capsule splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. Despite problems with the Falcon 9 rocket that launched the mission — a premature engine shutdown 79 seconds into the launch forced the rocket to release a secondary commercial payload in a lower-than-intended orbit — NASA considered the mission a success and SpaceX will continue to fly delivery missions under the $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract it got in 2008.

SpaceX completed a demonstration cargo run to the space station in May. Since then, McAlister told NASA Advisory Council members, the Hawthorne, Calif., company has collected the final payout of a $394 million flight demonstration effort NASA required the company to complete before beginning routine deliveries.

Still waiting to collect on its own $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services contract with NASA is Orbital Sciences Corp. The Dulles, Va.-based company will deliver cargo in its Cygnus space tug, which will be launched from the Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Va., aboard the medium-lift Antares rocket Orbital is developing.

As of Nov. 15, Orbital had completed 25 out of 29 milestones in its flight demonstration contract with NASA, netting the company $276 million of a possible $288 million award. To collect on the rest of the demonstration contract, Orbital will have to complete a demonstration space station cargo run of its own. Such a mission is not likely to launch until early 2013, McAlister said in mid-November.

Before Orbital’s first supply run, the company has to test-fly Antares with a ballast payload. The rocket’s maiden flight had been scheduled for December, but cascading delays at the pad, including cleanup efforts after Hurricane Sandy blew through the area Oct. 29, likely mean no Antares flights this year, McAlister said.



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Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...