The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

CST-100 at Bigelow station
While Boeing has identified commercial customers for its CST-100 commercial crew spacecraft, most notably Bigelow Aerospace, the aerospace giant believes its business case for commercial crew won’t close without government support. (credit: Boeing)

Recasting the debate about commercial crew

Bookmark and Share

Since February 1, when the White House formally released its 2011 budget proposal for NASA, one of the hottest areas of debate about the agency’s future has revolved around the plan in the budget proposal to support development of commercial systems that can transport crews to and from the International Space Station, to the tune of $6 billion over five years. For commercial space advocates, the plan was welcome news, an affirmation of the growing capabilities of established and entrepreneurial space companies alike and the logical next step beyond ferrying cargo to the station. For others, though, the idea of turning to companies who have yet to demonstrate their ability to take cargo to the ISS—let alone people—seemed an unwise diversion from the tried-and-true path of government-operated systems.

For months that debate has taken place in a handful of Congressional hearings, conference sessions, and industry forums, as well as countless op-eds and essays in print and online. It’s only in the last couple of weeks, though, that this debate has resulted in action, in the form of language and funding lines in legislation on Capitol Hill. And while the process is far from over, for advocates of commercial crew systems the news is mixed, at best.

Congressional action

The Senate Commerce Committee acted first, approving its version of a NASA authorization in a brief markup session on July 15. That bill provides $312 million for commercial crew development in fiscal year 2011, compared to $500 million in the White House proposal, and $500 million in 2012 and again in 2013, compared to $1.4 billion each of those years in the White House proposal. The legislation includes a number of other commercial crew provisions, including a ban on entering into contracts for commercial crew services in 2011, development of human-rating requirements, and an assessment of commercial markets for such vehicles, among others.

“This is the epitome of socialism and corporate welfare,” Rep. Grayson said about a commercial crew loan guarantee proposal.

The House, by comparison, has made a far more severe cut on commercial crew programs. A NASA authorization bill approved Thursday by the House Science and Technology Committee provides only $50 million a year for commercial crew development for fiscal years 2011 through 2013 (the original version of the bill extended that funding level for five years, but the final two years of the overall bill were removed during the committee’s markup of the bill Thursday.) Also included in the bill is a new proposal: $100 million a year for three years for a new loan guarantee program to support commercial crew vehicle development. The three-year total of the development and loan guarantee programs, $450 million, falls far short of the $3.3 billion in the administration’s budget proposal for the same period. The bill instead authorizes several billion dollars to develop a government-operated crewed spacecraft and launch vehicle that would likely be closely derived from the Orion and Ares 1.

Committee chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) explained that the committee took this path because it concluded that both the original Constellation program and the White House’s proposed alternative were not “executionable” as planned given available funding, likening both to balloon mortgages. “I believe the bill before us today provides the nation with a productive future for its human spaceflight program, one that can be sustained even in the midst of budgetary uncertainty,” he said.

Some members of the committee fought to restore at least some of the commercial crew development funding. Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) proposed increasing funding to the same levels as the Senate bill, but was rebuffed by the committee who did not want to transfer money from the launch vehicle and crewed spacecraft programs to pay for it. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) sought to increase funding for the COTS cargo program in FY11 to the same levels as the White House’s proposal, but was also rejected. “I am philosophically in tune with Ms. Kosmas and Mr. Rohrabacher,” Gordon (D-TN) said when discussing his opposition to Kosmas’s amendment, “but I am not fiscally attuned to that.”

“From talking to multiple members of the commission, they really didn’t think that [commercial crew] was going to be that controversial,” Muncy said. “Unfortunately, they were wrong.”

Some on the committee sought even bigger cuts to commercial crew programs. Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) introduced an amendment that would eliminate the loan guarantee program from the bill. “This is the epitome of socialism and corporate welfare,” he said of the proposal. “Why hand $500 million of federal resources to companies that don’t need it, haven’t asked for it, don’t want it, and in all likelihood will provide nothing for it?” (The $500 million referred to is the five-year value of the program before the bill’s scope was reduced to three years.) The amendment was defeated after opposition from committee leadership as well as Rohrabacher, who had earlier expressed concern about the loan guarantee provision since it appeared in the bill without having been previously discussed in earlier committee hearings.

Commercial advocates regroup

A day after the House markup, many commercial crew supporters retreated from the figurative and literal heat of Washington for the cooler and more comfortable confines of the NewSpace 2010 conference organized by the Space Frontier Foundation in Sunnyvale, California. A previously-scheduled session of the conference on orbital spaceflight turned into a discussion about the current state of legislation and prospects for improving the situation.

Jim Muncy, president of PoliSpace and co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation, noted that commercial crew was never intended to be as controversial as it has turned out to me, as all the options in the Augustine Committee’s final report with the exception of the “program of record” ones utilized commercial crew as the most cost-effective, fastest solution to closing the post-shuttle gap. “From talking to multiple members of the commission, they really didn’t think that coming to that conclusion was going to be that controversial,” he said. “Unfortunately, they were wrong.”

Muncy was critical of some elements of the current legislation, such as the loan guarantee provision in the House authorization bill. Loan guarantees work, he explained, for projects like ships and buildings, where there’s something being built that, if the loan falls through, can be sold. “Using that to fund development is problematic in lots of different ways.”

He also said he was puzzled by restrictions in Senate legislation that prevent NASA from entering into commercial crew service contracts in fiscal year 2011. “I don’t understand why, if you are worried about the gap in US human spaceflight and having to pay Russia for space goods and services,” he said, “you would say you can’t even start for a year.”

Those issues, though, have been just a small part of the larger debate about whether NASA should provide funding to support commercial crew development versus the more traditional development of government-run spacecraft and launch systems. Opponents of the commercial crew proposal have cited a number of arguments, from philosophical objections to government subsidy of commercial efforts to worries about the lack of demand for such systems outside of NASA to concerns about the capabilities of upstart companies to develop such systems on budget and schedule, as well as do so safely.

At NewSpace 2010 industry and government officials took some effort to address those arguments. Phil Mcalister, who has been leading planning of the commercial crew program at NASA Headquarters since February, said he couldn’t address the business case for proposed commercial systems since they don’t exist yet and thus their costs are unknown. However, he said he was not concerned about the potential demand for them, citing space tourism and other commercial markets, flights of astronauts from other countries, and NASA’s own needs for transport to and from the ISS, especially with the decision to extend the station’s life to at least 2020. “For the first time in history we have a real, reliable, sustainable market for human space transportation services,” he said. “I think that was the key to enable this program to go forward.”

Mcalister said he was also not concerned about the ability of companies to safety perform such flights, since they would be far less demanding than what was planned for Constellation. “This is really geared for just up-and-down space transportation,” he said. “This is a relatively well-understood mission,” he added, likening it to the Gemini program of the 1960s.

“What we’re simply saying is, cannot US industry do the same thing we’re contracting out to the Russians?” asked Sirangelo.

“What we believe we’re doing differently is not in the companies” that would provide commercial crew service, said Mark Sirangelo, chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which has been advocating for the commercial crew program. While many entrepreneurial companies, like SpaceX and Sirangelo’s own Sierra Nevada Corporation, have expressed an interest in commercial crew, so have larger companies. For example, earlier last week at the Farnborough International Airshow in England, Boeing discussed its proposal to develop a commercial crewed spacecraft, the CST-100. That project already has a significant potential non-NASA customer: Bigelow Aerospace, whose founder, Robert Bigelow, appeared at the Farnborough briefing with Boeing officials.

Instead, Sirangelo said, commercial providers are pushing for a different model: fixed-price contracts instead of cost-plus awards, a greater acceptance of risk by the commercial providers as well as a willingness to invest their own money to help fund the development of these systems, and the ability to use them to serve non-NASA customers, all of which can help both the companies and NASA. “There’s little motivation to bring things in on schedule and budget” with cost-plus contracts, he said. With fixed-price contracts, “we’re interested in giving that service as soon as possible in as safe as possible a manner.”

In fact, Sirangelo added, that’s exactly how NASA contracts with Russia for purchasing seats on Russian Soyuz flights to the ISS. “What we’re simply saying is, cannot US industry do the same thing we’re contracting out to the Russians?”

Recasting the debate

One solution to the debate would be for commercial providers to develop their systems entirely privately, and not seek NASA funding at all. That was the general advice of Alan Stern in a separate talk at NewSpace 2010. What can look like an obviously good program to industry, he noted, can look very different to a member of Congress who is up for reelection every two years and is worried about jobs in his or her district. “I would urge all of us to try to think more about how we do NewSpace without thinking about the government writing us checks.”

However, the magnitude of the funding needed to develop commercial orbital crewed spacecraft—hundreds of millions to perhaps billions of dollars—suggests that the government may be the only source of funding to support near-term development of such systems. Mcalister, who last year supported the Augustine Committee, noted that at the time a number of companies pitched commercial crew systems to the committee. “Consistently, everyone said that without any government support, there was really no viable way for them to get a return on their investment,” he said.

That conclusion was echoed last week by Boeing officials in Farnborough in discussions of funding development of the CST-100. “The money that NASA has proposed being invested allows us to close the business case,” said John Elbon, manager of Boeing’s commercial crew program. “It would be very difficult for us to make a decision to move out if there is no decision in Congress to support commercial crew.”

“We can’t let this conversation be about SpaceX versus ATK, or how NASA astronauts get to space,” said Muncy. “We have to make it about the future of humanity.”

Instead, some believe that the nature of the debate about commercial crew needs to change. “It is mindboggling to me that we have gotten ourselves into this terrible situation where it’s commercial LEO versus government beyond LEO,” Muncy said, when in fact he argued that the former enables the latter. “I don’t know if it’s going to be possible to reframe the debate between now and then to clarify this,” referring to the end of this year, when Congress will likely compromise on a final appropriations bill. “Next year we’re going to have to have a different debate than the one we had this year.”

That different debate would stop pitting entrepreneurial firms against established contactors. The real fight, Muncy said, is between “a white-collar welfare state space program and a frontier-opening, settlement-enabling, future-changing space strategy.” Put another way, he said, “We can’t let this conversation be about SpaceX versus ATK, or how NASA astronauts get to space. We have to make it about the future of humanity.”

“The good part is that the fight isn’t over,” he said. “And, arguably, the real fight hasn’t even begun.”