Thursday, August 6, 2015

Г-н Путин: Спасибо, Конгресс!

Expedition 44/45 crew members at a July 8 Star City press conference. Left to right: Kjell Lindgren of NASA, Oleg Kononenko of Roscosmos, and Kimiya Yui of JAXA. Image source: NASA.

(The headline is Russian for ... Mr. Putin: Thank you, Congress!)

The Russian spaceflight industry will remain quite healthy, thank you, for the next few years thanks to the members of the U.S. Congress.

NASA issued a press release August 5 announcing that the commercial crew budget cuts by Congress have forced the agency to extend reliance on the Russian space agency Roscosmos through 2019.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden sent a letter to Congress Wednesday informing members that, due to their continued reductions in the president’s funding requests for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program over the past several years, NASA was forced to extend its existing contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to transport American astronauts to the International Space Station. This contract modification is valued at about $490 million.

The full text of the letter is available online and was delivered to the leadership of the congressional committees that oversee NASA.

Here are the opening paragraphs from that letter:

Since the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2004, NASA has been committed to developing a follow-on, low-Earth orbit transportation system and limiting our reliance on others to transport U.S. crew to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2010, I presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015 if provided the requested level of funding. Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned. This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS.

I am writing to inform you that NASA, once again, has modified its current contract with the Russian government to meet America’s requirements for crew transportation services. Under this contract modification, the cost of these services to the U.S. taxpayers will be approximately $490 million. I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry — the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX — to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.

Having watched Congressional space hearings for years, I can only conclude that the real reason Congress slashes commercial crew is that the members of the space authorization and appropriations committees see NewSpace programs as a threat to pork in their districts and states.

Unlike past years, where these cuts have been bipartisan, for the Fiscal Year 2016 budget the blame lies squarely with the Republican Party, which controls both houses of Congress.

The House of Representatives voted June 3 to cut commercial crew by $240 million, or about 20%, from President Obama's request.

Space News reported that Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), whose Houston district is near Johnson Space Center, “said that he would work to increase funding for commercial crew as well as the Orion spacecraft” but failed to offer an amendment on the House floor to do so. Culberson chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA funding.

On the Senate side, the appropriations committee voted June 11 to whack the FY16 commercial crew budget by 25%. The cut came from the space subcommittee chair, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), a three-time winner of the “Porker of the Month” award from Citizens Against Government Waste for his zealous protection of government-funded jobs in Alabama. A proposal by Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) to restore the 25% cut was defeated along party lines, 14-16.

As I wrote on June 11, many members of these committees pit commercial crew in a zero-sum battle against the Space Launch System. SLS was created by Congress in 2010 primarily to protect jobs in the districts and states of NASA-related committee members. The program is at least two years behind schedule despite all the money Congress has thrown at it.

A NASA-funded study issued July 20 suggested that a program based on the partnership model established with commercial cargo and crew could do a Moon mission for about 10% of what it might cost with SLS. The report most likely will be ignored by Congress, because it proposes a path that doesn't protect jobs in key congressional districts and states.

In September 2012, Roscomos General Director Vladimir Popovkin predicted that if Russia didn't privatize as NASA planned, “We will become uncompetitive in the next three or four years if we don’t take urgent measures.” What Mr. Popovkin didn't take into account was that the U.S. Congress would choose instead to prefer Roscosmos as the American crew launch agency over NASA. Popovkin was replaced in October 2013, and died eight months later.

I'm skeptical that Administrator Bolden's letter will help much. These people are well aware of what they're doing. They don't care. Their electorate won't hold them accountable for sending jobs to Russia, so long as the jobs in their districts and states are protected. Politicians like Culberson and Shelby are in “safe” districts with comfortable Republican majorities. They're not going anywhere.

The only hope is that the cuts might be restored when the House and Senate versions of the bills go to conference, but that may not be until the end of 2015 or early 2016. Going into the 2014 election year, the Republicans shut down the federal government for three weeks in October 2013 trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act. Going into the 2016 election year, some observers predict the GOP might try it again, possibly over Planned Parenthood.

Vladimir Putin and the Russian oligarchy, meanwhile, can rest assured that NASA will remain a Roscosmos customer for years to come. Federal law prohibits foreigners from donating to federal campaigns. Putin and his cronies got off cheap.

UPDATE August 7, 2015Houston Chronicle space reporter Eric Berger posted this blog article blasting Congress for choosing to fund Roscosmos instead of NASA.

Traditionally Senate budget writers have raided the commercial crew budget to add more money to the budget for the Space Launch System. This is NASA’s large rocket, under development, that the space agency says is essential to landing humans on Mars one day.

It may be, but that day is not now, or even in the next two decades.

The Space Launch System, or SLS, is not slated to make its maiden test flight until the second half of 2018. However, the limiting factor for that test flight is not the rocket itself, which I am told is being developed relatively close to on time, and on budget. Rather the uncertainty for the 2018 launch date is due to the Orion spacecraft, which will fly on top of the rocket. More specifically, it’s the service module for Orion, being developed by the European Space Agency.

Nonetheless the Senate budget writers would like to shower the SLS with money. While NASA only requested $1.36 billion, the Senate budget provides $1.9 billion for next year. That is more than half a billion dollars than NASA says it needs for the rocket. And why would it need any extra money, anyway, if the rocket can’t fly until Orion is ready?

There’s a pretty simple answer for that: The chairman of the Senate’s NASA budget writing committee is Richard Shelby, a senior senator from Alabama. Marshall Space Flight Center, in his state, is responsible for designing and building SLS.

Glad to see Mr. Berger get on board, but his opinion column fails to note the blood on the hands of Houston-area Congressman John Culberson (R-TX), who as I wrote upstream whacked 20% out of the Fiscal Year 2016 commercial crew budget then failed to follow through on his promise to restore the funding on the House floor.

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