WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and members of the House Science space subcommittee traded jabs March 27 about whose fault it is that U.S. astronauts will not launch on U.S. spacecraft for at least another three years.
During a hearing on NASA’s 2015 budget request, Republican lawmakers, rankled by Russia’s recent annexation of Crimea, voiced fresh concerns about relying on the Russian Soyuz system to transport U.S. astronauts to and from the international space station.
Under current NASA planning, an American-made alternative will not be ready until around 2017. In the meantime, the U.S. agency pays Russia about $70 million for every astronaut round trip to the station.
Congress has itself to thank for that, Bolden said. “This Congress chose to rely on the Russians because they chose not to accept the president’s recommendation and request for Commercial Crew,” he said in a testy exchange with Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), the subcommittee’s chairman.
NASA began its Commercial Crew Program in 2010. The bulk of the program’s funding is now split among three companies working on competing spacecraft designs to succeed the space shuttle as the United States’ means of sending astronauts to low Earth orbit.
At least one of those spacecraft could have been ready as soon as 2015 had Congress simply given NASA the money the White House has sought for the effort each year since 2010.
“I have said we will slip if we don’t get the funding, and we have slipped two years,” Bolden said. “I am saying the same thing again today: If we don’t get what the president requested, I can’t guarantee 2017 … and we will continue to pay the Russians. I don’t like that.”
NASA is requesting $848 million for Commercial Crew in 2015, nearly $150 million more than Congress provided in the 2014 omnibus bill, which is the high-water mark for the program. Since 2010, the program has received about $2 billion from Congress.
Many in Congress, on both sides of the aisle, have been skeptical about the Commercial Crew Program. These lawmakers tend to favor the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and companion deep-space crew capsule, Orion, which are being developed at an annual cost of nearly $3 billion. Unlike the Commercial Crew Program, where industry is largely responsible for vehicle designs, SLS and Orion are being built under traditional government contracts using designs dictated by NASA.
One SLS supporter, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), said he was “astonished” that Bolden would claim the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama had nothing to do with the current gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability. Brooks’ district includes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, which is leading the SLS effort.
“When the space shuttle was mothballed [in 2011], President Obama was president of the United States,” Brooks said. “He could have made the decision to continue to use the space shuttle, or to continue to keep it available in the event of an emergency. He chose not to.”
“I would have recommended we phase it out quicker,” Bolden countered. The NASA boss also reminded Brooks that the plan to end the space shuttle program was set in motion in 2004 by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama established the Commercial Crew Program after canceling Bush’s congressionally approved initiative to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon.
Congress resurrected elements of the canceled lunar program, namely SLS and Orion, in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. It was not until 2013 that NASA identified a possible destination for these vehicles: a small asteroid hauled into lunar space by a robotic vehicle the agency hopes to develop.
NASA has pitched the so-called Asteroid Redirect Mission — some elements of which would have to be tested aboard the international space station — as a steppingstone to Mars. Many in Congress say they fail to see the connection, and also question how commercially designed space systems factor into the equation at all.
“If I don’t have commercial crew and I can’t get to low Earth orbit, I don’t need SLS and Orion,” Bolden said in an exchange with Brooks. “If I can’t get to low Earth orbit, there is no exploration program.”
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