Funding Bills Would Ensure Delays, Continued Reliance on Russia

Just when Congress finally seemed to be getting the message on the funding requirements of NASA’s commercial crew program come a pair of disheartening marks for the activity next year in spending bills drafted in the House and Senate.

Congress provided $805 million in 2015 for the commercial crew program, which will restore NASA’s independent ability to transport crews to and from the International Space Station. That figure, while short of the $848 million requested by NASA, is still the largest amount appropriated to date.

NASA upped its request to $1.24 billion for 2016, a peak development year. Boeing and SpaceX signed full-scale development contracts last year for competing vehicles that are scheduled to begin flying in 2017.

But the House version of the 2016 commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations bill, which funds various agencies including NASA, recommends $1 billion for commercial crew. The Senate version is even stingier, providing only $900 million.

The Senate Appropriations Committee, in the report accompanying its version of the bill — which eventually must be reconciled with the House measure — cited program delays as justification for its proposed mark. Milestones in NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capability, or CCtCap, contracts with Boeing and SpaceX have already been delayed and more challenging ones lay ahead, the report said.

Because contractor payments are tied to completion of these milestones, the Senate reasoning goes, NASA doesn’t need as much money as it requested.

There is logic to that argument — this is supposed to be a commercial procurement, and in the commercial world, a deal is a deal. Moreover, NASA’s attempts to cast shifts in the CCtCap milestone schedules as changes rather than delays are unconvincing. As the Senate report points out, NASA’s contract with Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, signed earlier this year, for astronaut rides to the space station aboard Soyuz vehicles in 2018 indicates a lack of confidence that the commercial crew vehicles will be up and operating by then.

But viewed in the larger context of NASA’s situation and how space programs typically work, the Senate’s argument fails to stand up. For one thing, space development programs almost invariably take longer than initially projected — building astronaut-carrying capsules, even under commercial-like contracts, is not the same as stamping out communications satellites. Delays would be likely under any circumstances, never mind the fact that Congress has shortchanged the commercial crew program from the beginning. NASA’s contract for additional Soyuz seats in 2018 is a prudent hedge against this likelihood.

What the Senate mark does — and probably the House mark as well — is all but assure that NASA will remain dependent on Russia for crew transport, not only in 2018 but also in 2019 and maybe even beyond. If Boeing or SpaceX runs into development issues with its vehicle, and it is reasonable to assume both will, NASA will have no choice but to stretch out the schedule, which in the long run will drive costs even higher.

Members of the House and Senate appropriations committees are well aware of the inverse relationship between budget and schedule. In fact, these same lawmakers have repeatedly cited the need to maintain schedule in boosting budgets for the Space Launch System, a massively expensive heavy-lift rocket that, along with its companion Orion crew capsule, still lacks a consensus mission beyond two test flights scheduled for 2018 and 2021.

Although the House version of the CJS appropriations bill has passed on the House floor, Democrats in the Senate are threatening to block debate on the legislation in the upper chamber. This reflects a larger dispute over whether to adhere to government-wide spending caps imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011.

How this will play out in the coming months is anyone’s guess, but there should be opportunities to modify the Senate’s proposed appropriation for commercial crew. If lawmakers do not seize on one of those opportunities they will have only themselves to blame when NASA is still relying on Russia for space station crew transport come 2019.