Lawmakers Raise Doubts About Commercial Crew Price Tag

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s bid to jumpstart a domestic commercial spaceflight industry is a risky investment that will not yield a dramatically cheaper alternative to the proven Russian Soyuz capsules in which U.S. astronauts now ride to space, U.S. lawmakers said.

During an Oct. 26 hearing, leaders of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee said they were supportive in principle about the concept of commercial human spaceflight, but skeptical that the market for such services could support multiple players. NASA is providing seed money to four companies developing astronaut crew-carrying vehicles and hopes to continue supporting at least two concepts through development.

“I am not opposed to this new approach,” Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the committee’s chairman, said. “I have yet to be convinced that there is a sufficient commercial market that will sustain multiple private, for-profit commercial crew companies through the duration of America’s commitment to the international space station.”

The international space station (ISS) is slated to fly until at least 2020. NASA wants to start flying two commercial flights a year to ISS beginning in 2017 — and split those operations between at least two commercial providers. 

In his prepared remarks, Hall said that the rush to ready a U.S. commercial capability “that doesn’t dwarf the cost now charged by Russia” was a “perilous business proposition,” given that ISS might fly for only a few years after commercial spacecraft are ready for launch.

“I would rather not pay money to the Russians either,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the committee’s ranking Democrat, said. “But I will find it very hard to justify to my constituents spending an extra $6 billion to transport our astronauts to the ISS for a limited amount of time unless I can also credibly argue that doing so will open up a broad new competitive market in commercial crew transportation.”

William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate here, said during the hearing that NASA needs between $4 billion and $6 billion during the next five years to develop commercial crew transportation capabilities by 2017.

Without commercial vehicles, NASA will have to continue relying on Russia, which is charging $56 million per seat aboard Soyuz capsules in 2013. That price will increase to $62.7 million in 2014 and 2015, according to Gerstenmaier.

Gerstenmaier sidestepped questions about the likely costs of seats on commercial space vehicles, noting that the companies would have to provide this information in their proposals for the next round of NASA’s commercial crew program. “We need to see the actual proposals,” he said. “We think we can equal the Soyuz seat price or be better than the Soyuz seat price.”

NASA’s demand for commercial astronaut transportation to ISS is “roughly two flights per year,” Gerstenmaier said.

Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of commercial crew hopeful Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and one of several industry witnesses at the hearing, said his company’s price per seat would be $20 million — assuming four crewed flights a year with seven passengers each.

A full ISS crew consists of six members, and only three of these are cycled out at a time — so SpaceX would have to sign up non-NASA passengers in order to offer $20 million seats on its Dragon space capsule.

Musk and other industry witnesses suggested that wealthy space tourists or foreign astronauts whose governments cannot afford or do not wish to buy seats on Soyuz could provide business for commercial spaceflight companies.

These executives specifically cited the inflatable space-habitat business of motel mogul Robert Bigelow as a source of non-NASA demand.

Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., has deployed two test modules in space, but the company laid off nearly half its employees in late September and it is not clear when it will deploy its first human habitat in orbit.

Musk was the only industry witness willing to name a price per seat, but representatives from Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. said their business cases would close on NASA business alone. Both companies would rely on the Atlas 5 built by Denver-based United Launch Alliance to deliver their planned vehicles to orbit.

George Sowers, vice president and director of business development at United Launch Alliance, whose company is working to qualify Atlas 5 to launch astronauts, said it is worth developing a domestic, non-NASA crew transportation system if only to have an alternative to Soyuz.

“Everyone can have a bad day,” Sowers said, referencing the Aug. 24 loss of a Russian Progress cargo module caused by a failure of the usually reliable Soyuz rocket. “Our investment in commercial crew is justified, first of all, to protect our investment in the international space station.”

Charlie Percourt, vice president of ATK Space Launch Systems Division of Magna, Utah, was less upbeat about non-NASA demand for human spaceflight.

“I don’t know if there’s enough market,” said Percourt.

ATK, a major contractor for the massive NASA-developed Space Launch System, is working on a commercial rocket design called Liberty, which would utilize the space shuttle-derived solid-rocket motor and an upper stage supplied by Europe. Liberty was passed over for NASA funding under the second round of the agency’s Commercial Crew Development program.

Four companies are receiving funding under the program: Blue Origin of Kent, Wash.; Boeing Space Exploration of Houston; Sierra Nevada of Sparks, Nev.; and SpaceX of Hawthorne, Calif. United Launch Alliance and ATK later entered the program as unfunded participants.

The next phase of the commercial crew program is known as the integrated design contract. It is worth up to a total of $1.6 billion and will require providers to pitch a full crew transportation system, including the launch vehicle. The first award under this new phase of the program is scheduled for June.