Commercial Crew Concerns Crop Up Again in Congress
WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers on Feb. 29 asked President Barack Obama’s science adviser whether NASA should continue to subsidize development of more than one privately operated astronaut taxi.
During a hearing on the president’s 2013 budget request for civilian science and technology programs, White House Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren was questioned by appropriators skeptical that funding multiple competitors under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program was the fastest way to restore independent U.S. access to the international space station.
Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, asked Holdren if it would be better for companies competing for the Commercial Crew Program awards NASA expects to make in August to “kind of come together under the leadership of NASA” instead.
“Would you consider combining them into a star team in order to eliminate the cost that would be incurred as they dropped out and to expedite this some?” Wolf asked Holdren.
Holdren demurred, noting that while “I do have some expertise in rocket science, I don’t have any in corporate management or in mergers.”
The president’s science adviser did offer that “one of the things that may happen is that some of the technology from firms that drop out, when it’s good technology, will be bought by the firms that stay in.”
In its 2013 budget request, released Feb. 13, the White House proposed spending $830 million of NASA’s $17.7 billion budget next year to keep multiple commercial crew hopefuls on track to start flying astronauts to the space station in 2017.
NASA’s commercial crew request is more than double the $406 million Congress gave the program in 2012. Holdren said that if crew taxis are not coming along as quickly as Congress would like, the 2012 appropriation is part of the reason.
“Congress gave us too little money to keep commercial crew on a fast track,” Holdren said.
Although they did not come down firmly one way or the other about NASA’s 2013 funding request, Wolf and the subcommittee’s top Democrat were of one mind when it came to NASA considering collaboration.
“There may be a great deal of wisdom in the chairman’s point that there may be more to be gained by collaboration amongst some of the commercial crew companies than by pure competition,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania, the panel’s ranking Democrat.
Proposals for the third round of the Commercial Crew Program are due March 25 with awards expected in August. NASA plans to award funded Space Act Agreements to at least two competing crew transportation providers. The 21-month agreements will be worth $300 million to $500 million each and are intended to mature designs for two crew transportation systems.
Mike Gold, the director of Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., said two awards would be adequate.
“Distributing funds to more than two efforts would likely be problematic from a financial perspective, and to the extent that drives consolidation or not, so be it,” Gold said in an interview after the hearing.
Bigelow, which is developing inflatable space habitats, is also working with Boeing Space Exploration of Houston on that company’s CST-100 space capsule. Boeing is expected to pair CST-100 with aAtlas 5 for its third-round commercial crew proposal.
On the same day Holdren was questioned by Wolf’s subcommittee, seven Republican members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee sent a letter to the White House calling into question whether NASA’s procurement plan, which relies on funded Space Act Agreements rather than standard government contracts, would produce transportation systems safe for astronauts.
“We have serious concerns about the Administration’s course of action with the commercial crew program,” the members wrote. “It is inexcusable for the Administration to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds on these nascent systems without the ability to define and impose the necessary requirements to ensure the health and safety of astronaut crews.”
The letter was signed by Reps. Pete Olson (R-Texas), Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Randy Hultgren (R-Ill.), Steven LaTourette (R-Ohio), Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas).
NASA has said that Space Act Agreements do not give the agency legal authority to dictate design requirements to contractors. However, the Commercial Crew Program office in December published a document called the CCT-1100 Series — a list of agency standards and certification procedures that it expects would-be providers to follow if they expect to win flight services contracts down the road.
“Everybody knows what our requirements are going to be if they ultimately want to sell their services to NASA,” Phil McAlister, director of the Commercial Crew Program at NASA headquarters here, told Space News March 2. “They know right now, today, which requirements they’re going to have to meet.”