WASHINGTON — Some advocates of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program are optimistic the effort to restore U.S. crew transportation capabilities via privately owned space taxis can survive — and succeed — even if Congress again denies the steep increase the White House is seeking for the program.
The White House requested $830 million for the Commercial Crew Program in 2013 — a little less than it requested for 2012 but more than double the $406 million Congress ultimately approved. If Congress fails to pass a 2013 budget before the new fiscal year begins Oct. 1 — as many experts predict — NASA and other federal agencies likely would see their budgets frozen under a stopgap spending measure known as a continuing resolution.
For NASA, a continuing resolution that freezes spending at 2012 levels would actually leave the agency with slightly more money than it would receive under the $17.71 billion White House spending plan lawmakers were sent Feb. 13.
“I don’t think even a yearlong continuing resolution that just says ‘you get last year’s funding level and no more’ dooms commercial crew, because NASA can put and take within that total in its operating plan,” James Muncy, a space policy consultant and lobbyist based in Alexandria, Va., said Feb. 22.
Every year, after budgets are enacted, federal agencies send operating plans to Congress that explain in greater detail how annual appropriations will be spent. In these plans — which must pass muster with the relevant congressional oversight committee — agencies sometimes shuffle funds from one budget line to another. Muncy noted that NASA’s 2012 budget, for example, includes nearly $500 million for space shuttle closeout activities that will not be needed in 2013.
If Congress does manage to move a NASA spending bill this year, the Commercial Crew Program faces the same hurdles it did last year: lawmakers who say the program is diverting funds from the congressionally mandated Space Launch System () and Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the space shuttle-derived space transportation system NASA is designing for deep-space missions.
Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) is a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and a fierce protector of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., which is building SLS. He and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) have already accused the administration of funding commercial crew at the expense of SLS and Orion.
“The President’s proposed budget for NASA underfunds the Space Launch System next year and instead gives that money to speculative ‘commercial’ providers that continue to over-promise and under-deliver,” Shelby said in a statement emailed to Space News Feb. 22. “I expect that, once again, Congress will have to force the Administration to invest in a real exploration program that adequately funds SLS.”
Even if House and Senate appropriators move NASA bills this year, there is little optimism in Washington that the two chambers will reach agreement on a 2013 spending package before the November election.
At least one space advocacy group is preparing for its annual membership visit to Capitol Hill under the assumption that there will be no 2013 appropriations package.
“We’ll go into some sort of a continuing resolution,” said Paul Damphousse, a retired Marine colonel and former Senate staffer who in January was appointed executive director of the National Space Society.
The National Space Society is a membership group that promotes space exploration and settlement. On Feb. 26, it will begin its annual “legislative blitz,” a round of policy pitches to legislators and staffers into which, Damphousse said, the Commercial Crew Program will figure big.
“We’re so close, and we’re going to get so many benefits from commercial,” Damphousse said.
The Commercial Crew Program began in 2009 with $50 million in funding and is now entering its third and final phase.
NASA on Feb. 7 unveiled the solicitation for its Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) program, which will award Space Act Agreements to multiple firms designing astronaut transport systems. NASA had planned to use traditional government contracts for this phase of the program, a 21-month effort meant to carry at least two competitors through critical design review, but did an about-face in December in light of the funding shortfall. Awards are expected in July or August. NASA is hoping that regular crewed flight to the international space station can begin in 2017.
Charles Miller, who recently stepped down from his position as NASA’s senior adviser for commercial space, said that the Commercial Crew Program might still be able to meet that goal even if it remains funded below the $800 million-plus NASA is seeking.
“With the right leadership, NASA could have something flying by 2017,” Miller said in a Feb. 22 phone interview.
Miller noted that Space Exploration Technologies — one of the four companies currently receiving NASA funding for crew vehicle development — designed and built the Falcon 9 rocket for $400 million, a fraction of the $3.9 billion some analysts say the vehicle would have cost if it was built under traditional Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) contracts.
“That means he had an order of magnitude [more] effectiveness per dollar spent using funded Space Act Agreements than using FAR-based contracts,” Miller said. “If you just assume that it’s four times as effective to do funded Space Act Agreements, what I just said holds: half the money and twice the bang for the buck. NASA’s own analysis said funded Space Act Agreements is a far more effective way to spend the money.”
But NASA’s Commercial Crew Program leaders have warned that they need the funds requested in order to keep the effort on track.
“Ultimately, that number comes from us, the program office, and that’s what we need to do the program,” Ed Mango, program manager for the Commercial Crew Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, told Space News Feb. 15.
Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters here, went even further, warning during a Feb. 14 industry briefing in Florida that another big funding setback could derail the program.
If commercial crew remains funded at half of what NASA has requested, “I would say it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to do this program,” McAlister said. “We couldn’t get there.”