Click the arrow to watch the NASA budget event.
Every year since President Obama first proposed funding it in 2010, Congress has cut the President's requests for the commercial crew program that would have ended NASA reliance on the Russian space agency Roscosmos to reach the International Space Station.
Although the harshest rhetoric opposing the program came from Republicans, opposition in general has been bipartisan.
The members of the space authorization and appropriations subcommittees in the House and the Senate often represent districts or states that have NASA space centers, or NASA contractors. The commercial cargo and crew programs threaten to end pork directed to their districts, so despite partisan differences they've more or less united to underfund commercial crew.
The commercial crew program was not an Obama product. It dates back to November 2005, when NASA opened the Commercial Crew/Cargo Project Office. Section 108 of the 2005 NASA authorization act required NASA to “develop a commercialization plan to support the human missions to the Moon and Mars, to support low-Earth orbit activities and earth science missions and applications, and to transfer science research and technology to society.”
The plan shall identify opportunities for the private sector to participate in the future missions and activities, including opportunities for partnership between NASA and the private sector in conducting research and the development of technologies and services. The plan shall include provisions for developing and funding sustained university and industry partnerships to conduct commercial research and technology development, to proactively translate results of space research to Earth benefits, to advance United States economic interests, and to support the vision for exploration. The plan shall also emphasize the utilization by NASA of advancements made by the private sector in space launch and orbital hardware, and shall include opportunities for innovative collaborations between NASA and the private sector under existing authorities of NASA for reimbursable and nonreimbursable agreements under the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958 (42 U.S.C. 2451 et seq.).
The first commercial cargo contracts were issued to SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler in August 2006; after RpK failed to meet initial milestones, it was dropped from the program and replaced by Orbital Sciences in 2007.
Although it was on paper, the commercial crew program went unfunded until the Obama administration submitted its Fiscal Year 2011 proposed budget.
Click the arrow to watch the February 25, 2010 House Science Committee hearing.
Despite earlier Congressional legislation that required NASA to find a way to keep ISS going past 2015, the final Bush administration budget for NASA assumed the station would be shut down and deorbited in 2016 to pay for Constellation, a program that claimed it would put astronauts back on the Moon by 2020. In reality, there was no Moon program. The Constellation Ares I would be lucky to deliver crew to ISS by 2017, when the station would be lying at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.
The first Obama administration budget proposal cancelled Constellation to save and extend ISS to 2020. Ares I would be replaced by funding commercial crew.
Most members of the Congressional space subcommittees were outraged.
Obama was accused of “decimating NASA” and ending the U.S. space program. But as pointed out by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) during the budget's first hearing on February 25, 2010, most of his colleagues were more interested in protecting the jobs in their districts. He questioned why there wasn't more concern about a program that had spent $9 billion to date but failed to yield any demonstrable results. “That workforce is holding America back,” Rohrabacher said.
In the end, Congress agreed to cancel Constellation, but replaced it with another pork project called Space Launch System. Dubbed the Senate Launch System by its critics, SLS was created by key members of the Congressional space subcommittees to protect the NASA contractor workforce. To this day, Congress has yet to tell NASA what missions SLS will fly, or how those missions will be funded. They demand President Obama do that.
Commercial crew was funded, but at far less than what the Obama administration requested. That first budget proposal projected $5.8 billion in commercial crew funding through Fiscal Year 2015 to end U.S. reliance on Russia. Congress approved $2.6 billion. That extended reliance on Russia through at least 2017.
The consequence of Congressional myopia was exposed last year when Russia threatened to cancel U.S. access to the ISS after the Obama administraton imposed sanctions on the Russian economy in retaliation for Russia seizing the Crimea province in Ukraine. I wrote last May that such threats were hollow; without NASA and its other space partners, Russia has no customers for its withering space economy.
But the ongoing strain in U.S.-Russian relations may have given the Obama administration the leverage it needs to force Congress to properly fund commercial crew.
The proposed FY16 budget released February 2 requests $1.2 billion for commercial crew, an increase of 55% over what Congress approved for FY15.
If you look at NASA's FY15 budget proposal, the administration one year ago projected asking $872.3 million for FY16. The new budget proposal is 42% higher than what was projected a year ago. FY17 sees a similar huge increase.
|FY 15 BUDGET REQUEST||872.3||791.7||730.9||172.0||N/A|
|FY 16 BUDGET REQUEST||1243.8||1184.8||731.9||173.1||1.1|
NASA officials stated the huge increase is due to having actual dollar amounts now that NASA has firm contracts with Boeing and SpaceX to deliver crew to ISS once certification is complete.
But I have to wonder if the administration believes it has a lot more leverage thanks to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Another government agency involved in commercial space is also seeking a budget increase.
Space News reported on February 3 that the FAA's Office of Commercial Transportation is requesting a nine percent budget increase for FY16.
Most of that increase will be used to hire additional staff for the office, responsible for both regulating and promoting commercial space transportation activities. The budget increase would allow the office to increase its staff by 25 employees, to 106.
“Expansion of commercial space transportation is increasing AST’s regulatory workload, while the Office’s resources remain essentially unchanged,” the FAA stated in its budget request. It noted there were 19 commercial launches carried out under FAA licenses and permits in fiscal year 2014, with 20 to 30 such launches projected in 2015 and more than 30 in 2016.
That increased workforce would allow the office to handle oversight of those launches and of nine licensed commercial launch sites. Adding to the workload are requirements in federal law for the office to rule on a launch license no more than 180 days after receiving a completed application, and within 120 days for experimental permit applications.