Science Committee Hearings on NASA’s Human Spaceflight Program Highlight Uncertainties

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Publication date: 
11 November 2011

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The  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has held a series of hearings this  fall about the new direction that NASA is taking in its human spaceflight  program.  A common theme in all three  hearings has been varying degrees of skepticism about the new approach the  program is taking.

The  latest hearing focused on NASA’s commercial crew development program.  The first panel of witnesses at this October  26 hearing were senior executives from The Boeing Company, Sierra Nevada Space  Systems, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, ATK Launch Systems Group,  and United Launch Alliance.  They all  expressed confidence in their ability to safely transport NASA astronauts to  the International Space Station.  Their  ability to do so on schedule depends, as was heard repeatedly during this  hearing, on “adequate funding” from Congress.

The  outlook for “adequate funding” in FY 2012 is not promising.  Early this year, NASA requested $850 million  for its commercial crew program for FY 2012.   House appropriators recommended $312 million in their funding bill,  while the Senate bill included $500 million.   A final FY 2012 bill is scheduled to come to the House and Senate floors  next week.  If this bill provides $500  million it will be less than 60 percent of what the Administration  requested.  NASA Associate Administrator  William Gerstenmaier testified that this level of FY 2012 funding would result  in a one year delay in achieving the Administration’s goal of flying astronauts  to the station in 2016.  With many  details still to be settled, Gerstenmaier said NASA estimates it will  eventually spend $4 to $6 billion in its commercial crew development program,  much of which will be provided to one or two companies.  To date, the program has spent $320 million.

While  many concerns were expressed by both Democrats and Republicans, there are two overriding  issues.  The first is whether there is a  viable market for commercial human spaceflight services.  Each of the senior executives assured the  committee that such a market exists.   Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) spoke about this market in his  opening statement:

“If  indeed industry can perform safely and profitably, and at substantially less  cost, then I will be the first to congratulate them and NASA. My hesitance  though, is based on the very thin evidence provided to date by NASA that this  new business model is well understood and that it can succeed. I have yet to be  convinced that there is a sufficient commercial market that will sustain  multiple private, for-profit commercial crew companies through the duration of America’s  commitment to the International Space Station [ISS]. NASA seemingly takes the  position of ‘build it and they will come’; that by starting these companies  first, business will soon follow.

“Some  say the business case is not very compelling, at least for those companies  intending on       using  NASA as an anchor customer. Assuming two commercial companies will be certified  by       the  end of 2016, at two flights a year for four years based on NASA’s projections,  government       may  need only eight flights. That’s four flights per company, probably at a rate of  one a year.

“The  number may grow if ISS is extended, but there’s no guarantee. Four flights to  recover some       significant  portion of sunk investment, coupled with the goal to price the service at a  rate that       doesn’t  dwarf the cost now charged by Russia, suggests to me a perilous business  proposition. I       think  that NASA owes Congress and the laudable companies that are before us today a  much       more  thorough assessment of the situation ahead. These companies have invested  millions of dollars  and Congress has committed millions more -- it is time for NASA to deliver  credible plans  and analysis so that we can move forward with more confidence.

“What  I do not want to see happen is putting government in the position of stepping  in to salvage       one  or several failing companies in order to preserve a national capability. Many  of us are well       aware  of the debacle that confronted the Air Force with its EELV program, and this  committee is       not  prepared to let NASA repeat that mistake. To paraphrase my friend and former  Chairman of       this  Committee, Bart Gordon, I don’t want to find ourselves at some future time  throwing       additional  sums in this program because the commercial launch companies are ‘too important  to fail.’

“For  all my seeming skepticism, I am willing to be convinced that I’m wrong, and I  hope I’m       wrong.  I want the private markets to relieve NASA of the cost and burden of building a  new       launch  system for low Earth orbit. But as I said a minute ago, NASA must do more to  address       these  important questions, and it’s our role as the Committee of jurisdiction to  ensure that       whatever  path we ultimately take, government’s investment will be well understood and  well spent.”

The  second major issue raised by several Members involves the economics of the new  program.  Many Members of Congress have  expressed disappointment in the years-long gap between the retirement of the  space shuttles and the inauguration of a new U.S. system to fly astronauts to  the space station.  Yet there is concern about  the cost to develop this hardware for what could be a limited number of years  until the space station’s retirement in 2020.   The committee’s Ranking Member, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) discussed  this in her opening statement:

“commercial  crew would reduce - but not eliminate - dependence on Russia for International  Space Station-related goods and services. NASA estimates that the cost to the  U.S. government to purchase Russian crew transportation and rescue services  would be about $450 million a year from 2016 to 2020, or a total of about $1.8  billion for those four years.”

Note  that Gerstenmaier testified that 2016 is the “timeframe” when it might be  possible for commercial services to transport astronauts to the station,  although several of the corporate officials predicted they would be ready  before then.   Johnson continued:

“NASA  and others have argued that the commercial crew initiative will help create a  new commercial crew space transportation industry with a wide range of private  and public customers, thus lowering costs and allowing NASA to focus on deep  space exploration.

“What  are the costs of the initiative? Last week, NASA’s Deputy Administrator was  quoted as saying that ‘we have an analysis that says we believe we would  require $6 billion over five years’ to develop the commercial crew systems.

“I  have to take the Deputy Administrator at her word, as NASA still has not  provided Congress with the basis for its commercial crew budget requests since  the initiative was first announced almost two years ago -- though I find it  unsettling that the $6 billion estimate is almost $2 billion more than the  amount actually bookkept for commercial crew in the NASA five-year budget plan  that was submitted to Congress in February of this year.

“Now  that $6 billion is just to develop the systems. Perhaps we will hear otherwise  today, but all of the information provided by NASA to date indicates that it  believes that the U.S. commercial crew systems will be ‘competitive’ with the  Russian Soyuz in price per seat but not significantly cheaper. So, at this  point it looks like NASA will still be paying roughly the same amount to  commercial crew providers through 2020 that it would be to the Russians.

“As  a result, I and other Members will have to decide whether it is worth paying a  $6 billion premium in taxpayer dollars in order to have a domestic ISS  commercial crew capability available to replace the Russian system for a  four-year period -- assuming the U.S. commercial crew systems are certified  operational by 2016. Now I would rather not pay money to the Russians either,  but I will find it very hard to justify to my constituents spending an extra $6  billion to transport our astronauts to the ISS for a limited amount of time  unless I can also credibly argue that doing so will open up a broad new  competitive market in commercial crew transportation for American industry.”

Many  of these issues and uncertainties will not be settled for several years, and  will largely be beyond the control of Congress.   Of more immediate concern to NASA and its ability to keep its schedule  on track is the amount of funding for the commercial crew program that is  contained in the FY 2012 appropriations bill that Congress will be voting on  next week.  Said Gerstenmaier, “We need  the appropriate funding for this challenging program.”