WASHINGTON — Commercial space advocates here said the private sector should have a larger role in U.S. space exploration plans, even as a legislative aide warned that NASA — still the critical anchor customer for such companies — is in line for yet another difficult budget year. 

“As we look toward the future, commercial space does not stop at low Earth orbit,” Mike Gold, director of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace and chairman of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), said at that group’s annual spring meeting May 15. 

Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., has a pair of Space Act Agreements with NASA, including a nearly $20 million pact awarded in December to fly one of the company’s inflatable space modules aboard the international space station in 2015. 

“I find it a bit of a false debate that occurs in this town the whole notion that somehow it’s commercial space versus NASA leading our exploration effort,” Steve Isakowitz, vice president and chief technology officer for New Mexico-based Virgin Galactic, said at the COMSTAC meeting. Virgin Galactic, which just tested its hybrid rocket-powered SpaceShipTwo, is preparing to send paying tourists to the edge of space beginning in 2014. 

NASA’s stance, which Administrator Charles Bolden repeated at the COMSTAC meeting, is that using privately owned spacecraft such as those being developed by Boeing, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Sierra Nevada under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, can free up agency resources for exploration beyond Earth.

“NASA does not belong … in access to low Earth orbit,” Bolden said. “There are still things to be learned there, but those things can be learned by industry as well as they can by NASA.”

NASA is spending $1.1 billion to finance development of three competing spacecraft  with the hope that at least one of them will be ready to launch astronauts to the international space station by 2017. Meanwhile, the agency is also developing the heavy-lift Space Launch System and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle for deep-space missions. 

The White House has consistently asked for hundreds of millions of dollars more for the Commercial Crew Program than Congress has been willing to give. In the Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (H.R. 933), which was signed March 26, Commercial Crew received about $489 million. The White House was seeking $830 million. For 2014, the Obama administration has requested $821 million for Commercial Crew

Meeting that request will be all but impossible, a House GOP aide told COMSTAC members.

“Say overnight there was 100 percent consensus that we wanted to fund [the Commercial Crew Program] at the president’s level. I’m not sure the resources are there,” said Thomas Culligan, legislative director for Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that writes NASA’s annual appropriations bill.

Bolden warned May 15, as he has many times before, that unless Congress meets the White House’s request, NASA will have to purchase even more spaceflight services from Russia. In April, NASA announced it would pay $424 million, or about $70 million a seat, to send six astronauts to and from the international space station aboard Russian Soyuz space capsules. The date for the final return flight under that deal is July 2017.

Another Soyuz deal, Culligan said, would be unacceptable.

“You’ve got a recognition on the Hill that you do need a [low Earth orbit] capability … you don’t want to see that date slip again,” Culligan said. 

Bolden has acknowledged in congressional testimony, most recently in an April 25 hearing of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, that without a fully funded Commercial Crew Program, the agency may have to pick only one aspiring provider to fund.

That could happen as soon as next summer, when NASA plans to award the next round of Commercial Crew funding.

A draft request for proposals for that funding — which will be meted out under a traditional government contract rather than the Space Act Agreements used in the Commercial Crew Program since 2009 — is due this summer. The final solicitation is expected in the fall, Ed Mango, manager of the Commercial Crew Program, said in a May15 phone interview.

“That will be what we call Phase 2, and that’s really the activities it takes to get certified,” Mango said. “It’s the testing, the analysis, the model verification activity. That’s all got to happen.” 

To win the next round of funding, Mango said, companies will have to propose at least one crewed mission to the international space station. The demo mission, Mango said, might even carry a NASA astronaut.

“We’re still open to discussions on that,” Mango 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...