Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Commercial Crew Crossroads

Last week's congressional hearings showed that elected representatives in the House and Senate remain skeptical, if not openly hostile, towards the commercial crew program. They remain oblivious to the reality that the United States continues to pay Russia $450 million a year for space taxi service to the International Space Station; some muse that the U.S. is better off sending taxpayer money to Russia than investing in American private industry.

According to SpaceflightNow.com:

"I had to turn off the hearings," said Phil McAlister, head of NASA's commercial spaceflight effort. "If I heard another senator say, 'commercial crew sucks' ... I had to turn it off because it was just too much. That's because of this change we're trying to implement, which a lot of people are not comfortable with."

In my opinion, congressional cynicism stems largely from their self-interest. Many of these elected officials view NASA as their personal pork program, funding jobs in their districts and states. Commercial cargo and crew transfers those tax dollars to companies largely unrepresented on the House and Senate space subcommittees.

But those committees only establish policy. The real money lies with the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees that determine money allocated to space.

Only one aerospace company straddles both worlds, and that's Boeing. According to OpenSecrets.org, Boeing spent $16 million in 2011 on lobbying, and employs 93 lobbyists.

Contrast that with SpaceX. In 2011, SpaceX donors contributed about $86,000 to various campaign funds. In 2010, the SpaceX PAC spent only $80,000 and for 2012 so far has raised about the same amount.

As the members of Congress this spring debate NASA's Fiscal Year 2013 budget, the salvation of commercial crew may lie in data submitted by the participants in their March 23 Commercial Crew Integrated Capability proposal.

SpaceflightNow.com reports:

Commercial partners have until March 23 to respond to a NASA call for proposals in the next round of the commercial crew competition. The agency will award agreements to multiple companies by August worth up to $500 million each, expecting providers to finalize their rocket and spacecraft designs by mid-2014.

"It's the first time we've asked industry to sign up to a full-up end-to-end cost and schedule," McAlister said. "We want to know what it's going to take to get to the end game, and how fast do you think you can get it?"

Jeff Foust comments on The Space Review:

The request for proposals for this latest round of the commercial crew program will also address an issue raised in the hearings: just how much these systems will cost to develop. John Roth of Sierra Nevada said that the current RFP requires companies to indicate how much they expect from NASA to develop their systems, and how much the expect to invest themselves, information not previously requested. “This will be the first time, on March 23rd, when the proposals go in, that NASA has full visibility for all contractors on how much money we need from NASA and how much our company’s going to put in,” he said.

Hard dollar numbers combined with a successful ISS demonstration flight this spring by SpaceX will undermine those in Congress who doubt commercial crew — but it still won't direct pork to their districts, and the campaign contributions that go with it.

It's up to those of us who support commercial crew to write our members of Congress and demand they fully fund this program. I do so regularly, although I rarely receive a response.

Last month, I e-mailed letters to Florida senators Bill Nelson and Marco Rubio, and my local representative Sandy Adams. None of them responded. Hopefully you have better luck with yours.

1 comment:

  1. Phil made concession after concession to keep Congress off his back and, surprise surprise, Congress is still on his back. Why would they let up, they're getting what they want, one concession at a time.