Craig Steidle was less than four months into the job as president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) when a heart attack forced him to step down. The retired U.S. Navy rear admiral will continue to advise the Washington-based advocacy organization, which represents a diverse group of 47 companies and organizations that aspire to make commercial human spaceflight a reality.
The CSF member roster includes some heavy hitters, including rocket maker United Launch Alliance, propulsion firms Aerojet and Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and commercial space poster child Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX). But there are at least two very notable absences: Boeing Co. and Orbital Sciences Corp., two well-established companies deeply involved in NASA’s efforts to foster development of commercial vehicles for delivering crew and cargo to the international space station.
The competition for $1.6 billion NASA intends to start spending in 2012 under a program industry commonly refers to as CCDev 3 — the third round of the Commercial Crew Development program — is shaping up as a three-way race among Boeing, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada. Those companies are refining crew taxi designs under CCDev 2 contracts awarded in April; NASA intends to select at least two concepts for further development toward a planned mid-2014 critical design review.
Although he spent most of his career in the Navy, where he ran the massive Joint Strike Fighter program, Steidle is no stranger to NASA. He was recruited in 2004 to stand up the agency’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, whose main purpose was to develop the hardware needed to fulfill a presidential mandate to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020.
Those development programs, collectively known as Constellation, were canceled in 2010 by U.S. President Barack Obama, who directed NASA to pursue a commercial approach to getting astronauts to and from the international space station while pursuing so-called game changing technologies for future deep-space exploration. But Congress has since pushed back, directing NASA to develop a heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and deep-space crew capsule — virtually the same vehicles that were being developed under Constellation — while gutting technology development budgets.
Steidle, who returned to the space business after a five-year teaching stint at the U.S. Naval Academy, spoke with Space News in late August.
What is the CSF’s top legislative priority this year?
Ensuring NASA’s Commercial Crew Program gets at least $500 million in the 2012 appropriation. It started at $850 million in the White House request and went down to $500 million in the NASA Authorization Act. Now it is considerably below that in the NASA spending bill House appropriators passed in July. We’d like to see a manager’s amendment in the House to restore some of the funding when the bill goes to the floor. I’ve also made sure that Jean Toal Eisen over on the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee staff knows that this is our highest priority so that when the House and Senate get together in conference they know that $500 million is what we desire, followed by $500 million for NASA’s Space Technology Program.
How much money does Commercial Crew need in 2013 to continue making meaningful progress?
The program as defined by NASA is $850 million in 2013. The total for CCDev 3 is somewhere around $1.6 billion.
How soon can CSF members deliver a crew capability within the envisioned funding levels?
I’ve heard dates ranging from 2014 to 2017, 2016, so I’ve been using 2016. I think I understand major programs fairly well, so if I can see the acquisition plan and the funding that’s actually there, I can define a date and the date I’m hoping for is 2016.
Why is Space Technology a CSF priority?
Technology development programs are very important as underpinnings for major system developments. I’ll give you an example from the defense side. On the Joint Strike Fighter program, there was a technology program focused on correcting national deficiencies in infrared sensors, weapons, small-diameter bombs, radar upgrades, stealth technologies and other things needed for the program to succeed. If you don’t have the technology underpinnings, the overall program will just slide to the right. On the NASA side, we need new cryogenic tanks and other technologies to build the exploration infrastructure.
Can Commercial Crew and SLS coexist in this budget environment?
I think they have to. I also think there has to be a prioritization. If you agree that we need to extend human presence beyond Earth orbit and continue robotic exploration of the solar system, what do we need to do to achieve that? First, we’ve got to get to the point where NASA is not sending a lot of its dollars to Russia. From that perspective, Commercial Crew is the top priority. Secondly, you have to build the infrastructure for human exploration. You need propellant depots, cryogenic tanks and valves, autonomous rendezvous, new communications systems — in other words, requirements-generated technology demonstrations. The SLS has to be funded on a longer-term basis to give us a heavy-lift capability for deep-space missions. As for the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, I don’t know what the multipurpose piece is. If we are building that very, very expensive machine to be a backup for the space station, I don’t think that’s the correct utilization of the money, design and effort. We need an exploration vehicle and we need to start talking about those exploration missions that only NASA can do.
So the SLS and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle need to be in there, but they need to be prioritized according to our needs. I believe the need is getting a U.S. vehicle to take our astronauts to the space station, building infrastructure and technology and then from a requirements standpoint develop the heavy-lift system and then a deep-space exploration vehicle.
The Russian Soyuz rocket that failed Aug. 24 is similar to the Soyuz variant used to launch crews to the space station. Will that incident help Commercial Crew gain political traction?
Fortunately no one was hurt, but it did draw attention to the fact that we have a single source of support for the space station at the moment. Commercial Crew is the shortest route to ending our dependence on Soyuz. The money we send to Russia can go back into other NASA programs.
What’s the advantage of a commercial crew transportation system versus a government system bought under a fixed-price agreement?
Under the commercial approach — either the rental car or taxi model — industry can use the system for customers other than NASA.
Is it realistic to assume there’s a market outside NASA?
You have to step back, take a wider view and first look at suborbital, because that will grow into this particular market. Suborbital started out focused on tourism and now it has expanded into science. The Southwest Research Institute, for example, has bought seats on planned suborbital vehicles for science missions. Next, I foresee educational institutes buying seats. Some of these suborbital companies are looking at growing into the orbital arena. Additionally, you have SpaceX, which is going to be doing proximity operations with the space station very soon. They will be taking their Dragon vehicle to other places, such as habitats that Bigelow Aerospace and others might have up and in place soon. Sierra Nevada is talking about servicing satellites.
How many orbital providers can the entire commercial crew market support?
I can’t say but I think there is a market. The space station is currently manned by six individuals with three rotating out every six months. I believe deployments will be reduced from six months to something less than six months so that the number of astronauts visiting the space station can increase. So the volume of flights is going to go up.
Does the CSF see the soaring costs on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope as a threat to its funding priorities?
I’ve advised industry not to point to an offset for our funding priorities. When you identify an offset, people come out from all over the place to defend their particular position. It makes things worse. So we’re making sure we don’t mention any offsets.
Personally, I think the Webb telescope is a national asset. For $8 billion, we’re going to design it, built it, test it, launch it, send it to a Lagrange point and operate it for five years. I don’t know what a one-of-a-kind spacecraft should cost given the state of our industry. But I think it should continue. I think it will be a national asset like Hubble. I don’t think the people over on Capitol Hill are going to let us put it aside.
Why is Boeing not a CSF member?
We needed to show our credibility as a voice and an advocate for the industry in D.C. We’ve communicated with Boeing regularly over a number of different issues. I think it’s just a matter of time.
Orbital’s not a member either.
No, and I don’t know why. My last trip I went to their facility at Wallops and looked at their horizontal integration facility and their hardware. Since coming aboard, I have sent a letter inviting them to become a part of our organization.