WASHINGTON — If NASA’s budget stays frozen at 2012 levels, commercially operated astronaut taxi services are probably not going to be ready in time for the United States to avoid buying Soyuz rides from Russia beyond 2016, something NASA currently lacks the authority to do, a NASA official said here.

“Meeting our target of having commercial crew capabilities up and running by the middle of this decade is unlikely with the current funding,” Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters here, told Space News Nov. 23. That, McAlister said, “could extend the length of our dependence on Russia to get to space.”

Under spending legislation enacted Nov. 18, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program will receive $406 million in 2012, or less than half of the $850 million the agency had sought to ensure that at least two commercially operated astronaut taxi services are available.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee during a Nov. 18 hearing that cutting back Commercial Crew funding to $500 million — the level Congress endorsed in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act — would push the debut of commercial crew taxi systems to 2017.

NASA in March agreed to pay the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, an additional $753 million to fly six astronauts to the space station in 2014 followed by six more in 2015 who would be returned to Earth in spring 2016 after a six-month stay aboard the orbital outpost. If NASA wants to send any of its astronauts to station aboard Soyuz in 2016 or beyond, it will have to further extend its deal with Roscosmos.

Further complicating matters, NASA’s latest congressional waiver of the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act — which bars the U.S. space agency from buying space station-related goods and services from Russia — expires in 2016.

Getting a new waiver will require legislative action. NASA says it is working with the White House to fine tune a pitch to lawmakers, who last granted a waiver in 2008.

“We are formulating a proposal for executive branch consideration in anticipation of discussions with Congress,” McAlister said Nov. 23.

Meanwhile, the next U.S.-owned space transportation system will not be ready for human passengers until at least 2021, NASA says. The congressionally mandated Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle received a combined $3 billion in 2012, out of a total NASA budget of $17.8 billion.

The aerospace companies vying for the chance to ferry NASA crews to the space station on a for-hire basis are Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin. All of these companies except for Space Exploration Technologies have said they will use one of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rockets as a launch vehicle.

It is not yet clear how much these companies would charge NASA for crew transport services. The U.S. space agency pays about $60 million a seat to fly astronauts on Soyuz, and some have questioned whether domestic commercial operators could beat the Russian price. The leadership of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee raised that issue in a late October hearing.

Executives with big aerospace contractors, who have their own NASA projects to fend for, have also voiced skepticism that a for-hire model would provide NASA with the savings it seeks.

“If the U.S. government relies on the commercial market to enable and support their strategic agenda for access to space, and they bake it into their budgets with no contingency, then it is gambling our future access to space,” Jim Maser, president of Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, said here Nov. 15 at a space industry conference organized by the George Washington University Space Policy Institute. “The end result is the U.S. government, having no contingency plans, declares their commercial investment ‘too big and too important to fail,’ and is forced to throw money at problems, money which must be taken away from other priorities.”

Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne was the main propulsion contractor for the space shuttle and will provide cryogenic core- and upper-stage engines for the heavy-lift Space Launch System.



NASA Lauds Progress of Commercial Space Companies Ahead of Hearing

Budget Boost for FAA Commercial Space Office Hits Headwinds

Suborbital Companies Told To Brace for Reduced NASA Funding

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.