Op-ed | Competition delivers the goods and the crew for all NASA commercial space services
On April 23, SpaceX launched a crew of international astronauts to the Space Station. This marks the third human spaceflight success for the firm’s Crew Dragon Capsule, developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew program. The amazing accomplishments of this program and of its predecessor, Comercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS), which funded development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and the cargo version of Dragon, depended not only on great engineering by SpaceX and other NASA vendors, but also upon the power of system redundancy and market competition. Both programs succeed, in great part, because NASA had two systems and two vendors. While we celebrate that, it appears that those lessons were not fully internalized on Capitol Hill.
During my service on the previous NASA transition team (2016-2017), one of the first decisions we faced was the question of continuing the Obama-era Commercial Crew program. That effort to deliver American astronauts to the International Space Station on commercial capsules was running years behind schedule due to the reluctance of Congress to fully fund the NASA request. There were also technical challenges facing both vendors, Boeing and SpaceX. Meanwhile, the loss of COTS payloads in both 2014 and 2015 demonstrated both the vulnerability of complex systems as well as the power of redundant systems to achieve programmatic objectives. With Commercial Crew vehicles behind schedule and on half-funding, some members of our team and some senior NASA officials supported a downselect of the program to a single vendor, so they could fully fund one system. I opposed that.
I felt strongly that technical redundancy and market competition were central to the principle of commercial space contracting. Any one system would leave us with the vulnerabilities that had plagued the space shuttle program. On the two occasions when a shuttle was lost, the United States was out of the space business for three years of investigations and re-engineering. Without the redundancy of Russian vehicles, the 2003 Columbia disaster would likely have resulted in abandonment of the International Space Station and a $100 billion U.S. investment and put the remaining station crew at risk. A failure of such magnitude could have marked the end of NASA human spaceflight.
Shuttle flights were also far more expensive than their originally projected costs, in part because the program became “too big to fail.” This is a condition NASA and the Defense Department have faced with many single vendor programs, including the current James Webb Space Telescope, the Space Launch System and the infamous F-35. The competition for the award and the intentions of the contract are easily lost once the governmental buyer lacks the leverage provided by having another vendor. Skipping competition in actual services is not an option.
Thankfully, Commercial Crew went forward with two vendors and funding was ticked up a bit. It worked. SpaceX now provides regular access to ISS on American rockets launched from American soil, rendering recent Russian threats to leave the space station less concerning. Meanwhile, Boeing, which experienced software failures during the demonstration flight of their CST-100 Starliner is re-flying that $400 million mission on their own dime. Redundancy saves lives and competition saves money.
I was therefore frustrated by NASA’s announcement of April 16 that, due primarily to insufficient congressional funding, they were downselecting the lunar Human Landing System (HLS) for the Artemis program from three to just one vendor, SpaceX. Selection of SpaceX’s Starship pleased me in that it represents a uniquely bold vision for space transportation to the moon, to Mars and beyond. Further, SpaceX has demonstrated the ability to outperform its competitors while receiving smaller awards that it effectively leverages with significant amounts of private capital. NASA’s source selection statement is intended to provide a non-political overview of all of the vendors’ merits in technical approach, management approach and cost. The document released last this month suggests that SpaceX offered more bang for the Buck Rogers. The firm also has a strong recent history of delivering for NASA.
However, as a student of history and someone who has been there, no amount of such analysis will convince me that a single vendor solution is the right option here. The proposals from Blue Origin and Dynetics also merit development. Congress must sufficiently fund the HLS program for the currently selected vendor and provide for competition. NASA’s vague promises of future services contracts for undefined lunar missions after Artemis 3, will not suffice for companies expected to invest billions of dollars and retain thousands of workers on their payrolls. NASA must clarify its commitment to a sustained lunar presence and future lunar transportation requirements.
I have immense respect for the fine choices President Biden has made with his NASA nominees, including the selection of former Sen. Bill Nelson for administrator, Pam Melroy as deputy administrator, Margaret Vo Schaus as CFO and particularly acting Chief of Staff Bhavya Lal who has done yeoman’s work to support the continuity of the Artemis program. I hope that team will work to convince OMB and Congress that in an environment as unforgiving as space, nothing is more expensive than short-term financial thinking. They must insist on funding adequate to support HLS competition, now. If they do not, we may someday find ourselves paying China for rides to the moon.
Greg Autry is a Clinical Professor of Space Leadership, Policy and Business with the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. He serves as Chair of the Safety Working Group on the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee at the FAA. The opinions expressed here are his own.