Space Station’s Future Rides on Commercial Cargo Haulers

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CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. —  In the near-term, NASA is on track to make good use of the international space station, but problems loom if the commercial companies hired for cargo runs do not come through, members of a congressional oversight committee warned March 28.

“I hope the incredible potential of the space station is not squandered,” Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said during a hearing, which was webcast, to assess the status of the orbiting outpost.

The United States is counting on two U.S. companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp., to deliver cargo and experiments to the station beginning this year. SpaceX is scheduled to launch its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon cargo capsule April 30 for a test run to the station. Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket and Cygnus capsule are expected to follow this summer.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, says he believes that in addition to SpaceX’s demonstration flight, the companies will be able to pull off at least two cargo runs to the station within a year.

Hall pointed out that when NASA selected SpaceX in 2006 to develop a space station cargo ship, its first flight to the space station was expected in June 2009. Dragon ended up debuting on Dec. 9, 2010, completing a test milestone originally proposed for September 2008.

“We spent two decades and tens of billions of dollars to build the international space station,” Hall said. “I’m beyond frustrated to know that our space station program is now dependent on launch systems to do the job that NASA ought to be doing. Congress has been pretty clear that NASA is not to rely totally on these commercial proposals. I hear excuses and delay after delay for the supposedly simple act of delivering cargo to the space station. NASA has spent $1.6 billion on this effort so far and the nation doesn’t have very much to show for it.”

Gerstenmaier said that when the companies miss milestones and have delays they are penalized.

“If they miss a launch date, they owe us either some financial considerations or additional analysis,” Gerstenmaier testified.

For example, to compensate for one launch delay, SpaceX did a redesign and added equipment so refrigerated samples could be launched and returned on the Dragon capsule.

“For every slip that occurs beyond a one-month period, we get some benefit back to us and we have to show how that provides equitable benefit to us equal to the amount that the slip has caused us,” Gerstenmaier said.

Former Apollo astronaut Thomas Stafford, a retired U.S. Air Force lieutenant general who chairs the International Space Station Advisory Committee, testified that his oversight board and the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel unanimously agreed that the commercial vehicle launch schedule was “overly optimistic.”

“Both commercial contractors continue to experience significant delays in their development, testing and their launch dates,” Stafford said, noting that after 2016, NASA is almost totally dependent on SpaceX and Orbital Sciences to resupply the station.

“Recently NASA has updated and revised the launch manifest, making the schedule more realistic, but this still may have some potential optimistic assumptions,” he added.

In addition to cargo transport, NASA plans to buy rides commercially for its astronauts. Proposals for integrated designs for space taxis were due March 23, with at least two awards expected in July. Currently, NASA is funding development work by Boeing, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin.

Gerstenmaier said the government-developed Orion capsule, which is being designed for deep-space human exploration, and the shuttle-derived Space Launch System booster could serve as a backup to the commercial initiatives, though the system probably would not be ready to fly until 2018 at the earliest.

“We have to make hard decisions and trade things across our budget,” Gerstenmaier said. “When we look at commercial crew, it has the potential of being there a little bit earlier than we can with the government system, so we’re pushing or aiming our direction toward the commercial crew activity to provide that service.”

Gerstenmaier also noted that the $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion NASA has invested in the commercial cargo carriers is “significantly less than we would have spent on a typical NASA full-up development of that activity.”

“We have the potential to really get this cargo capability at a dramatically less cost than we would have paid under traditional contracting,” he said.

In addition to similar cost savings, NASA expects the Commercial Crew Program to provide it the option of expanding the size of the live-aboard space station crew. Currently, rotating teams of three astronauts and cosmonauts staff the station, flying on three-seat Russian Soyuz capsules.

“If we get commercial crew at some point we’d like to increase the number of crew members on the flights from three to four and that would allow us to have an additional crew member on orbit, which would also increase the crew time available for research,” Gerstenmaier said.

Lawmakers also raised concerns about the Florida-based nonprofit organization CASIS that NASA hired six months ago to run the U.S. National Laboratory portion of the space station. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space is in the midst of a reorganization following the resignation of its director this month. Reps. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) called for review of CASIS by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Hall did not comment publicly on the request.

NASA spokesman David Weaver told Space News March 28 that following director Jeanne L. Becker’s departure, the agency asked CASIS “to lay out how it intends to meet the milestones set out in the agreement we have in place with them.”

“We hope and expect that CASIS will be able to meet the performance milestones, and are anxious to review — and validate — their response to our letter,” Weaver said in an email.

CASIS spokesman Bobby Block said NASA’s letter was sent to Space Florida, not CASIS, “and is being answered by them as they are the interim board.”

 

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