— NASA plans to spend $150 million to jump-start commercial efforts to deliver astronauts to the international space station, Acting Administrator Chris Scolese told members of Congress April 29.

The money would come from a $1 billion boost to NASA as part of the American Recovery and Investment Act signed into law Feb. 17, which directed NASA to spend $400 million on human exploration. If Congress approves NASA’s plan for the so-called stimulus money, the space agency will spend the remaining $250 million in exploration funds on the Ares 1 rocket and Orion crew capsule now under development, Scolese said during an April 29 House Appropriations commerce, justice, science and related agencies subcommittee hearing.

NASA is looking to minimize a multiyear gap between the space shuttle’s looming 2010 retirement and the planned 2015 debut of Ares 1 and Orion. Current plans call for NASA to pay Russia to transport U.S., European and Japanese astronauts to the international space station aboard three-man Soyuz capsules until Ares 1 and Orion enter service or a commercial option becomes available. NASA already has purchased three Soyuz seats for $47 million apiece and intends to buy up to 24 more, a situation that has drawn criticism from members of Congress and advocates of NASA paying the
private sector for crewed flights.

For cargo delivery to the space station through 2016, NASA awarded Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp. of
, separate contracts in December worth a combined total of $3.5 billion. Both companies are developing new launch vehicles and cargo tugs with funding assistance from NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation System (COTS) program, andSpaceX’s COTS agreement includes an option, known as COTS D, for demonstrating a crewed capability.

NASA officials stressed that the $150 million it is putting toward the commercial crew initiative should not be mistaken for a decision to exercise the $308 million COTS D option it negotiated with SpaceX in 2006. Orbital Sciences, which won its COTS award in 2008 after NASA rescinded RocketplaneKistler’s 2006 award for nonperformance, did not propose a COTS D option.

“We’re not going to go off and do what was originally described in COTS D,” said Scolese, who described commercial development of the crewed capability as “logically proceeding from cargo to a crew escape capability to bringing crew up to the space station.”

Instead, NASA plans to spend $80 million to develop enabling technologies identified through a forthcoming request for information from industry, opening the competition to all companies. Of the remaining money, $42 million would be spent on developing a common docking system on the international space station designed to accommodate commercial spacecraft, $8 million on setting human-rating requirements for commercial spacecraft and $20 million for accelerating the pace of commercial cargo flights to the space station to build confidence in re

of the commercial craft, Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said during an April 29 interview.

“It’s to ensure we get a crew capability as quickly as possible,” Gerstenmaier said.

announcement that NASA intends to spend $150 million trying to foster commercial options for getting astronauts to and from the station comes on the heels of NASA revising downward its minimum Soyuz buy.

NASA issued a notice April 16 that it intends to purchase a minimum of 18 Soyuz seats and a maximum of 24 under a contract negotiated late last year with the Russian Federal Space Agency. A week later, on April 23, NASA revised the notice of intent, reducing the minimum buy to three seats. The maximum remained the same. Gerstenmaier said there was no connection between NASA changing its minimum Soyuz buy and the decision to put money into commercial

“They are not related. There is no tie there,” Gerstenmaier said.

NASA spokesman John Yembrick said such changes are fairly routine.

“Modifications to presolicitations are not uncommon. Reducing the minimum may allow for more flexibility with contracting solutions, but it’s inappropriate to speculate what the exact intent of the change is related to,” Yembrick said in an e-mail.

Meanwhile, NASA’s $150 million commitment was called a good first step by industry sources who were surprised to see any money go toward the commercial crewed capability, given the tight budget and schedule NASA is working with to complete Ares 1 and Orion. The money, however, would have been more useful to fund initial risk reduction projects, rather than “nebulous” technology studies, said Jim Muncy, co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation based in

“Clearly the Obama administration is trying to pursue innovative partnerships with entrepreneurial companies to enable the earliest possible commercial human spaceflight to the international space station,” Muncy said. “It’s a very good sign, but the NASA bureaucracy has a different set of priorities.”

Congress, in enacting the 2008 NASA Authorization Act last October, directed the space agency to get moving on a competition to select at least two teams for a COTS crewed vehicle demonstration program. Because Congress failed to pass a 2009 budget until March, the American Recovery and Investment Act – a $787 billion stimulus package meant to shore up the flagging economy – offered the first opportunity to fund the so-called COTS D directive. SpaceX, which designed its reusable Dragon capsule with eventual crew flights firmly in mind, had lobbied hard for Congress to designate a portion of NASA’s stimulus funding for COTS D.

Congress ultimately left the decision to NASA, saying only that $400 million should be spent on exploration, a budget category that includes Ares and Orion as well as the COTS program. A spending plan for the stimulus money was due in mid-April.

In addition to the $150 million for commercial crewed capability, NASA plans to spend $250 million on Ares 1 and Orion, $325 million on Earth science, $75 million on astrophysics, $150 million on aeronautics and $50 million on hurricane repairs in
states. The remaining $2 million would go to NASA’s Inspector General’s Office.

As for the commercial crewed capability, Scolese said NASA wants development efforts to succeed, but said it was too early to say whether the space agency can depend on commercial providers to transport astronauts to the space station after the space shuttle is retired.

“We want it to be there, but we’ll have to wait and see as they develop it,” Scolese told Space News. “It’s a significant feat to go off and do, and as long as we’re authorized, we’re going to support it.”