WASHINGTON — While acknowledging delays in interim milestones for its two commercial crew contracts, NASA officials said July 28 they still require the full funding requested for 2016 to avoid delays in the overall program.
In a presentation to the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) meeting at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, agency officials said they risk having to issue stop-work orders to Boeing and SpaceX and renegotiate their contracts if Congress provides less than the $1.243 billion NASA requested in its original 2016 budget proposal.
“We still need $1.2 billion,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said at the meeting. “We’re going to work hard to try to justify to the appropriations folks why we need that.”
Neither the House nor the Senate versions of appropriations bills provides full funding for the program. A bill the House passed June 3 provides $1 billion for commercial crew, while the Senate version, approved by the appropriations committee June 11, offers $900 million.
The report accompanying the Senate’s spending bill suggested one reason for the reduced amount was the perception that the program was running behind schedule. “To date, milestones intended to show progress in the development of the ISS Crew capability have already begun to be delayed,” the report stated.
At the NAC committee meeting, Phil McAlister, NASA’s director of commercial spaceflight development, said that NASA had agreed with the companies to move or otherwise change some contract milestones. Those changes include splitting some milestones in both contracts into two or more parts, he said, where it made sense to move some of the technical content of the original milestone into a later phase of development.
Despite changes to those interim milestones, the final milestone — a certification review where NASA approves the commercial crew system for transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station — remains scheduled for September 2017 for both Boeing and SpaceX. “Both partners are making good progress,” McAlister said.
Delaying interim milestones, and the payments associated with them, does not affect the budget request since the funds for each milestone are typically obligated months in advance. “Even though some milestones have moved around, and we’ve split a couple, the amount of money we need is essentially the same,” McAlister said. “If one moved a year later, it might affect it, but we haven’t seen any of that.”
“There’s no question about ’16,” Gerstenmaier said of the milestones and funding requirements for the program. “We can even move them three months further beyond where they currently are in the current schedule and we can still justify the same budget need for 2016.”
McAlister said that NASA was looking at how to keep the program going should the 2016 fiscal year start under a continuing resolution (CR) that would fund agency programs at 2015 levels, which for commercial crew is $805 million. “Near term, if there is a CR, we’re going to have really work hard to make sure we don’t slow the partners down,” he said. “I’m not sure how it’s going to happen, but we are looking at every possible avenue to make sure we can keep them going.”
Gerstenmaier added that NASA’s current planning anticipated operating under a CR when the fiscal year begins Oct. 1 through December. If a longer CR, including one that lasts all year, becomes likely, he said NASA might request an “anomaly” to the CR so that commercial crew could be funded above its 2015 level.
If funding for 2016 falls short of the original request, McAlister said NASA could be forced to issue a stop-work order to the companies and renegotiate the contracts to accommodate the lower funding levels. “The contractors are going to have to stop work,” he said. “That’s almost certainly going to extend the time that we’re reliant solely on the Russian Soyuz to meet our crew transportation needs.” He also noted that downselecting to a single company was not an option they were considering.
Gerstenmaier said he continues to discuss with congressional appropriators why the program requires the full amount of funding. “To be fair, this is a negotiation process,” he said. “We probably were not as clear as we could have been at the beginning when the [appropriations] marks came out. We’re pretty clear now in the way we’re presenting the need for the funding.”