Thursday, October 27, 2011

The CCDev Hearing Post-Game Show

I doubt that anything changed after yesterday's commercial crew hearing by the House Committee on Science, Space and Technlogy.

Click here to access the hearing webcast.

Committee chair Ralph Hall, a self-declared skeptic of commercial space, noted that many of his colleagues had chosen not to attend, but told the speakers that didn't mean they don't care.

Space Coast representative Sandy Adams showed up late, having attended another meeting. Her questions begin at about the two hour, seven minute mark in the webcast archive.

After the meeting, the committee issued an official press release quoting Hall:

Emphasizing the uncertainties of this new business model, Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX), said “I think that NASA owes Congress and the laudable companies that are before us today a much more thorough assessment of the situation ahead. These companies have invested millions of dollars and Congress has committed millions more—it is time for NASA to deliver credible plans and analysis so that we can move forward with more confidence ..."

After expressing several concerns, Chairman Hall said, “For all my seeming skepticism, I am willing to be convinced that I’m wrong, and I hope I’m wrong. I want the private markets to relieve NASA of the cost and burden of building a new launch system for low Earth orbit. In a time of constrained budgets, we must first protect our presence in space and keep the faith with the American people and our foreign partners.”

Florida Today reports that NASA officials warned the committee that failure to properly fund commercial space would result in sending more money to Russia as the domestic launch schedule would slip.

“Providing inadequate funding ... presents an unacceptable risk to program execution and would force us to relook at our overall approach,” William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, told members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee. “We need the appropriate funding for this challenging program.”

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk stuck to his commitment to fly crew on Dragon by 2014, given adequate funding. The other executives all agreed they could fly by 2015 if properly funded.

Popular Mechanics reports that SpaceX may go its own way if the government bureaucracy intrudes.

If NASA doesn’t change the terms in the draft version of its contract to build a spacecraft that can deliver astronauts to orbit, then Space Exploration Corp. (SpaceX) may simply bow out of building one for NASA. "We may not bid on it," SpaceX founder Elon Musk said. However he is increasingly optimistic that the agency will change some of the rules that dictate the design ...

Musk made his comments to PM outside the hearing room, but the backstory of his frustration is the first draft of a contract called the CCIDC (Commercial Crew Integrated Design Contract), which NASA issued last month to guide the way that private companies build crew-carrying spacecraft. As Popular Mechanics reported last week, this early version of the contract allows NASA to exert more control over the hardware design than many in the industry are comfortable with. It installs NASA staff into the companies’ facilities and leaves open the question of how many changes the agency can force companies to make. concluded:

The projected costs and benefits of helping to develop commercial spaceships, part of NASA's plan to focus on exploration rather than transportation, drew skepticism today (Oct. 26) from members of a House panel.

While leaders of various commercial space companies spoke up for their industry's prospects in front of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology, lawmakers questioned whether there will be enough of a market in space transportation and tourism to justify taxpayer investment in new, private vehicles. Such ships will need more customers besides NASA astronauts to be profitable, the lawmakers said.

"NASA seemingly takes the position of 'Build it and they will come,'" said committee chairman Ralph M. Hall (R-Texas). "From my perspective, the business case is not very compelling."

UPDATE October 27, 2011 12:30 PM EDTJeff Foust of comments on yesterday's hearing.

Wednesday’s hearing by the House Space, Science, and Technology Committee on NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program didn’t yield any major breakthroughs or other significant news. Industry members in the hearing’s first panel expressed their confidence to develop systems to transport NASA astronauts and serve other markets in the next several years, provided adequate funding. NASA’s associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier also backed the program, while NASA inspector general Paul Martin covered some of the challenges the program faces.

Foust writes that "two themes" emerged from the hearing:

1. Congressional skepticism is about markets, not capabilities.

2. CCDev’s FY12 budget is looking increasingly likely to be no more than $500 million.

As NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver warned last week, Gerstenmaier said that funding CCDev at $500 million (the current Senate mark) rather than the administration’s request of $850 million would result in a one-year delay in vehicles entering service, to 2017, with the result that NASA would have to pay $480 million to Russia for an additional year of flight services.

Elsewhere, Popular Mechanics has a second article on yesterday's hearing.

Although industry leaders point to space tourism, orbital science operations, satellite tending, and the ferrying of other nations’ astronauts as potential markets beyond NASA, members of Congress on hand today had their doubts. Hall said one of his top concerns about the NASA–industry relationship was that he wanted to avoid making space companies "too important to fail" to the point that they would need to be bailed out if they fell into financial trouble lest America risk the loss of its ability to launch people into space. "I have yet to be convinced that there is a sufficient commercial market that will sustain multiple private, for-profit commercial-crew companies through the duration of America’s commitment to the International Space Station," he said.

Elon Musk, the founder and owner of Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) offered the most pointed defense. Although his company could not have come so far so fast without NASA help, he said "more than 50 percent of revenue" is coming from non-government launches. "With respect to the launch vehicle, we have 35 [unmanned satellite] launches under contract, so I believe the costs associated with the rocket part will be well taken care of," Musk said.

UPDATE October 27, 2011 7:30 PM has posted a letter from Space Adventures chairman Eric Anderson to Rep. Ralph Hall about the claims during yesterday's hearing that no market exists for commercial space:

First and foremost, it is not fair to say that because "only" eight seats have been sold there is no significant market for orbital human spaceflight. The primary limiting factor in the sales of orbital space missions has been the relative lack of supply. For the last few years, especially, Russia has provided 100% of its available seats to the NASA and the other international partners.

Second, while no one knows exactly how large the market is, I can assure you that Space Adventures is in contact with many, many prospective customers who are interested in flying, able to purchase a spaceflight, and ready to sign up... if only there were seats available. Furthermore, even as Russian costs and seat prices increased substantially over the past decade, we saw no significant reduction in interest on the part of customers.

Third, every customer who has flown to space from Russia has had to spend six months away from their regular lives undergoing tests, extensive training and language instruction in Russia. For many, this cost is actually greater than the price of a ticket. One of the first questions every prospective customer asks in some form is: "when can I fly from the U.S.?"

That question is a good one for your hearing. Why shouldn't America, as we seek to lead the world in exploring beyond Earth orbit, also lead in the commercial application of human spaceflight? Shouldn't space tourism create new jobs here, rather than in Russia?

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