Friday, February 6, 2015

The Empire Strikes Back

NASA's proposed Fiscal Year 2016 budget was released less than a week ago, but the members of the House Science Committee have already responded with a “bipartisan bill” that once again seeks to undercut the commercial crew program.

I wrote on February 5 that NASA's proposed FY16 commercial crew budget requests $1.2 billion, or about $370 million more than what was projected a year ago. The reason given by NASA is that last fall it entered into its first human spaceflight contracts with Boeing and SpaceX, so now more tangible numbers are available for the actual cost.

Today's House Science Committee press release is long on self-congratulation but short on specifics.

If you read a separate document described as “Highlights” of the proposed bill, you find language which suggests the committee once again intends to force NASA to down-select to only one commercial crew provider.

The document states the bill would direct NASA to “assist in building at least one Commercial Crew system.” It also states a “reiteration of Congressional direction that Orion serve as a backup system to support the ISS if necessary.”

In hearings over recent years, many committee members have expressed their preference that NASA select only one provider — repeating the same mistake that led to NASA being grounded for over two years after the Challenger and Columbia accidents, because no other option was available.

The wisdom of redundancy was demonstrated late in 2014 when, after an Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo ship was destroyed during launch, replacement experiments and supplies were rescheduled for upcoming SpaceX Dragon flights.

If the House Science Committee had its way, the ISS would be running out of supplies by early summer, relying only on Russian Progress cargo deliveries for survival.

Dropping one vendor might violate the contracts signed by NASA last September with Boeing and SpaceX. As I wrote on September 17, the contracts guarantee each vendor at least two ISS human spaceflights — a guarantee apparently required to assure the companies they should continue to invest their own money in vehicle development. The House Science Committee appears to want to violate those contracts.

As for Orion as a backup, it's not scheduled for human rating until the early 2020s. The agreements among the ISS partner nations expire in 2020. In January 2014, the Obama administration announced its intention to extend the ISS through at least 2024. Negotiations have begun with the partners, but until those agreements are formal there would be no reason to adapt Orion for ISS docking.

Typically over the last several fiscal years, the Senate version of NASA authorization bills has been more generous with commercial crew funding. The House version of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was ignored by the committee's own chamber, which approved the Senate version instead.

If this year's committee succeeds is passing legislation through the House to once again undercut commercial crew, it will fall upon the Senate space subcommittee led by Republican Ted Cruz (R-TX) to defend commercial crew. The full committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation is led by Republican John Thune (R-SD) although the minority's ranking member is Democrat Bill Nelson (D-FL), one of the architects of the Senate's version of the 2010 authorization bill.

It looks like commercial crew is in for another rough ride this year — which may explain why NASA announced today its intent to procure more Russian Soyuz rides in 2018.

Florida Today space reporter James Dean broke the news earlier today on Twitter.

The procurement notice states:

NASA/JSC intends to contract with Roscosmos for these services on a sole source basis for six (6) Soyuz seats and associated services for calendar year (CY) 2018 with rescue/return services extending through spring 2019. NASA needs to secure crew transportation with a known reliable provider to ensure a continued U.S. presence aboard the ISS until the sustained availability of a U.S. commercial vehicle. The intent of this proposed action is to provide the Government the ability to procure these uninterrupted services until a U.S. provider demonstrates full operational capability.

NASA has established a goal to ensure there are U.S. domestic space transportation vehicle(s) capable of traveling to low Earth orbit and has awarded contracts with two U.S. commercial entities for future U.S. commercial space flights. Commercial crew vehicle development is in the early stages and the first U.S. commercial crewed flight test is currently projected to occur in late CY 2017. Given the current maturity level of the commercial vehicles and the 3-year procurement lead time for Soyuz crew transportation services, NASA must contract for Soyuz now in order to assure uninterrupted access to ISS in CY 2018.

Until the U.S. commercial vehicles are successfully demonstrated and meet the acceptance criteria established by NASA, continued access to Russian crew launch, return, and rescue services is essential for planned ISS operations and utilization by all ISS partners.

However, once it is determined that US Commercial entities are able to fulfill increment crew transportation requirements, the US Commercial vehicles will become NASA’s primary transportation source to ISS. The Soyuz vehicles procured under this action may then be utilized as a backup transportation option to ensure proper launch cadence or to augment future ISS operations and research.

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