Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Congress Could Render Commercial Crew Irrelevant

CBS News space reporter Bill Harwood writes that further major budget cuts to commercial crew could "push the program to the brink of irrelevance."

The Obama administration has asked Congress for $830 million in fiscal 2013 to fund on-going development of new commercial manned spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But NASA only got half of what it asked for in 2012, a cut that effectively pushed the first operational launch back one year to 2017, and program officials said Tuesday any similar cuts in 2013 and beyond could push the program to the brink of irrelevance.

That's because the space station is the primary destination for private-sector spacecraft and the government currently is committed to operating the lab complex only through 2020. While NASA and its partners hope to keep the station going beyond that, funding is not assured.

If Congress significantly reduces funding for the commercial crew initiative again, if NASA only ends up with $300 million to $400 million per year for the next five years instead of the $800 million or so per year that's currently envisioned, "I would say it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to do this program," said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters.

UPDATE February 15, 2012Florida Today reports on yesterday's commercial crew conference in Cocoa Beach.

NASA needs sustained funding at the levels President Barack Obama recommended this week for commercial vehicles to launch astronauts from Florida by 2017, officials said Tuesday.

“We think private industry could field a system in probably four or five years if they had adequate funding,” said Phil McAlister, head of commercial spaceflight programs at NASA Headquarters. “If we get less money than that, obviously it will slip that date out a little bit further.”

UPDATE February 16, 2012 — More observations on what could be a looming battle in Congress between commercial crew and the Space Launch System.

From Space News:

If Congress halves President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program like it did last year, it may not be worth pursuing the program since the vehicles might not be ready in time to support the international space station, Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters, said Feb. 14 at an industry briefing here ...

“Just one test fight is going to be a couple of hundred million dollars, probably. So that’s your whole year’s funding, right? So it doesn’t really make sense at that kind of funding level. If we felt like that’s all we could get, we would definitely re-evaluate the program,” he said.

McAlister added that he is hopeful the budget request will be supported. “The president’s budget request sort of balanced all the things NASA is trying to do. We’ve got several months ahead of us to communicate with Congress the importance of that.”

And over at Aviation Week:

Another confrontation between Congress and the administration over commercial crew development could be in the works.

“These reductions will slow the development of the SLS and Orion crew vehicle,” warned Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the ranking Republican on the Senate, Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, a NASA oversight panel. The Texas lawmaker is among those who believe NASA’s Orion/SLS could be called upon to serve as the space station’s crew transportation backup, if the commercial initiative flounders.

“The administration remains insistent on cutting SLS and Orion to pay for commercial crew, rather than accommodating both,” Hutchison said in a statement Feb. 13.

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