COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — NASA remains committed to preserving competition in its commercial crew initiative even if Congress does not provide the full $830 million requested for the effort in 2012, a senior agency official said.

Speaking with reporters April 16 here at the 28th National Space Symposium, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said the agency likely would stretch out rather than change its approach to the Commercial Crew Program should it not be fully funded next year. Stretching out the program would extend the time during which NASA is dependent on Russia for crew transport to and from the international space station, she said.

A number of lawmakers, most recently Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, have expressed skepticism that the agency truly needs as much as it has requested for the Commercial Crew Program. Some have suggested that NASA could save money by reducing the field of competitors for the job, either by merging elements of the various commercial crew proposals or by simply selecting a winner and making the contract award this year. On April 17, Mikulski introduced a NASA spending bill that would provide $525 million for commercial crew for 2013 — about $300 million less than the agency is seeking.

NASA hopes to help bring at least two crew taxi providers into service, and Garver said this is the surest way to keep program costs down. With two providers, she said, NASA expects to spend less than the roughly $60 million it currently pays the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, for each seat aboard a space station-bound Soyuz capsule.

Congress in 2012 granted $406 million for the Commercial Crew Program, less than half of the $850 million requested by NASA. As a result, NASA plans to use Space Act Agreements rather than fixed-priced contracts to fund the next phase of the program, which is expected to yield at least two vehicles capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the space station. Space Act Agreements provide flexibility by enabling NASA to make payments when certain programmatic milestones are reached.

NASA currently has Space Act Agreements with four aspiring commercial crew providers: Boeing Space Exploration of Houston, Blue Origin of Seattle, Sierra Nevada Corp. of Sparks, Nev., and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif. All but SpaceX intend to launch their vehicles aboard Atlas 5 rockets provided by Denver-based United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture.

The next phase of the program is expected to get under way later this year.

Garver said the Commercial Crew Program, along with a related effort to develop commercial cargo delivery services to the space station, is critical to bringing competition to the government launch services business. Currently ULA launches the vast majority of U.S. government payloads aboard its Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets, whose prices have risen steeply in recent years due in part to rising propulsion costs related to the retirement of the space shuttle last summer.

NASA today spends about a third of its science budget on launch services, Garver said. While lauding ULA for providing highly reliable launch services, she said competition is the key to bringing prices down for the government and for making U.S. industry competitive again in the international commercial launch |market.

NASA is committed to operate the space station through 2020, but Garver said the agency wants to continue flying the orbital outpost beyond. That makes it even more important to keep costs down. “We’ve been clear that we believe competition is the best way to achieve this,” she said.

NASA has legislative authority to buy crew transportation services from Russia through the middle of 2016, which is about when the commercial crew taxis are expected to begin operating. Should the commercial crew vehicles be delayed, NASA will require legislative relief from a nonproliferation law to contract with Roscosmos for more Soyuz flights. Garver said a contract with Roscosmos must be signed three years ahead of when the first Soyuz flight is needed.

Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...