NASA Deputy Recounts Fight for Commercial Crew Backing

by

Las Cruces, NM — Surrounded by supporters at an annual commercial spaceflight conference here Oct. 21, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver was in a celebratory mood having won congressional backing last month for fostering development of crewed commercial spacecraft.

Speaking  at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight here, Garver lauded enactment of a bill U.S. President Barack Obama signed into law Oct. 11 that largely backs his plan to cancel the nation’s Moon-bounded Constellation program and extend the life of the international space station through at least 2020, providing a government market for commercially operated cargo tugs and crew taxis.

“Obviously the president proposed a fairly dramatic shift in policy and investments,” Garver said, referring to the 2011 budget blueprint Obama delivered to Congress in February. “Less than nine months later, a basic policy shift and a significant amount of the proposed restructure have been adopted in bipartisan legislation and signed into law.”

The NASA Authorization Act of 2010  passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent in August and was adopted by a bipartisan majority of the U.S. House in September after months of contentious debate on Capitol Hill.

“This happened in what is perhaps one of the most tense political months in years leading up to one of the most critical elections in our lifetimes,” she said, referring to upcoming November mid-term elections in which Republicans are favored to regain control of the House. “And the leadership in Congress — House, Senate, Republicans, Democrats — got together to support NASA legislation in order to give us a framework for the future.”

The three-year NASA authorization does not fund NASA programs, though it sets guidelines for congressional appropriators to consider when drafting annual spending legislation. Garver said  the bill clears NASA to abandon Constellation.

“We quickly state we are no longer proceeding with Constellation, when just a few months ago that was so hotly contested and a very hurtful time at NASA,” she said.

But while the law incorporates much of Obama’s new direction for the agency, language in the measure calls for development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle beginning in 2011, despite the president’s plan to spend up to five years studying advanced propulsion technologies in support of producing a new space transportation architecture that would enable the pursuit of a variety of manned deep space missions. In addition, the measure directs continued development of Constellation’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle for missions beyond low Earth orbit by 2016.

“It is a compromise and we recognize that,” she said. “No one ever gets everything they want in politics. The administration’s proposals were seen by so many as a dramatic shift, but this is significant progress and in a very, very short period of time.”

The law also pares back funding for Obama’s commercial crew initiatives, recommending $1.3 billion through 2013 for the effort rather than the $3.3 billion the president requested. “The healthy $1.3 billion for commercial transportation activities over the three-year period is a lot more than what we have spent in the past,” Garver said, adding that Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat who chairs the NASA authorization subcommittee in the Senate, “made the commitment that the program would be fully funded over six years instead of five.”

Garver cautioned that more work lies ahead as lawmakers draft 2011 spending legislation this fall. “You all know as well as I do this is just the beginning,” she said. “The legislation requires a number of critical milestones before we can even begin this program in earnest.”