NASA Seeks Spending Flexibility To Keep Commercial Crew on Schedule

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WASHINGTON — As NASA continues to advocate for full funding of its commercial crew program in 2016, the agency is seeking flexibility for the program in an upcoming short-term spending bill to avoid the risk of further delays.

In a Sept. 10 interview, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden confirmed that NASA would seek language supporting the commercial crew program in a continuing resolution (CR) Congress must pass this month to fund the federal government after Sept. 30.

“We are hoping that we’re able get permission from the Congress” in a CR to spend at a higher rate than it has in 2015, he said. Such a provision “would allow us to spend at a rate that would project to what we asked for in the 2016 budget. That would enable us to keep going with the companies as scheduled.”

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In a CR, agencies continue to spend money at the same levels as the previous fiscal year unless explicitly instructed otherwise in the bill. For commercial crew, that would mean spending at the 2015 level of $805 million for the year, whereas NASA requested $1.243 billion for the program in 2016. NASA says that amount is set by the contracts it has with Boeing and SpaceX.

In a document obtained by SpaceNews, the White House’s Office of Management and Budget included the commercial crew program in a list of variations, or “anomalies,” it is requesting to any short-term CR. The only other reference to NASA in the document is regarding the expiration of unspent funds for space shuttle closeout costs.

In the document, the administration requested that the CR allow NASA to spend funds on commercial crew “at a rate for operations necessary to maintain the planned schedule” for the program. “Without the anomaly, NASA would have insufficient funding for activities carried out by its commercial contractors during the CR period, forcing a work stoppage that would result in substantial delays that would lengthen U.S. dependence on other countries for crewed access to space.”

That request for short-term spending flexibility comes as NASA continues to advocate for the full amount it requested for 2016. An appropriations bill passed by the House in June provides $1 billion for the program, while a Senate version would provide $900 million.

The agency has gone on the offensive in recent weeks, arguing that without the full amount it will have to renegotiate its existing contracts and further delay the program. Bolden called for full funding in an Aug. 5 letter to Congress notifying them of the purchase of Soyuz seats for flights to the International Space Station in 2018, and also wrote an essay in support of the requested funding published by the technology magazine Wired Aug. 28.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: SpaceNews
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: SpaceNews

In the interview, Bolden said it was too soon to tell if that effort was winning over members. “It’s hard to say whether there are any effects on Capitol Hill because the Congress has been out of session,” he said. Congress reconvened Sept. 8 after a summer recess of more than a month.

One reason some in Congress have offered for the reduced commercial crew funding is the belief that companies are already running behind schedule. Bolden, though, said he was satisfied with their work so far. “I am incredibly happy with the progress both companies have made,” he said.

Other NASA officials have reiterated that any funding short of the request means that the agency will likely have to renegotiate the contracts with Boeing and SpaceX. “We’re going to run out of money at some point in 2016,” said Phil McAlister, director of NASA’s commercial spaceflight development division, in a Sept. 1 interview.

McAlister said that there is not yet a formal plan to deal with any commercial crew funding shortfall. “It will depend on exactly what the budget is and how far we’re short,” he said. “We’re just going to have to see how it plays out.”

A wild card in the budget debate is the potential for a government shutdown similar to 2013, when the lack of a CR forced most NASA operations to shut down for the first two weeks of October. Debates about policy provisions that could be included in a CR have raised the prospects of another shutdown this year.

McAlister said it wasn’t clear how a government shutdown would affect the commercial crew program, although he noted NASA personnel involved in the program would likely be furloughed for the duration of the shutdown.

John Mulholland, Boeing commercial crew program manager, said in a Sept. 3 interview that he expected his company’s work to continue in the event of a shutdown given the milestone-based nature of the contract, as it did during the prior shutdown. “We’re going to continue work,” he said.

Bolden said that, for now, NASA is not doing any planning for a potential shutdown. “We’re counting on the Congress performing the way that both the Speaker of the House and the [Majority] Leader in the Senate have promised the American public, and that is that we will not experience a government shutdown,” he said. “That’s what NASA is counting on.”