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While the Space Launch System is actually ahead of schedule right now, funding problems could jeopardize it and other agency human spaceflight efforts. (credit: NASA)

For NASA, the best of times and the worst of times


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All the promise, perils, and contradictions of America’s human spaceflight effort were on display last week in Washington, DC, in what must have been a rollercoaster of emotions for NASA officials. For a day or so, the space agency was able to put aside its budget problems to celebrate the success of a major program, and to look forward to bright future in which NASA is once again sending its astronauts into orbit and deep space on American spacecraft. But then the proverbial other shoe dropped to remind everyone of just how difficult it will be to accomplish that goal.

As NASA struggles to execute a series of ambitious programs on increasingly tight budgets, the main beneficiary appears to be the bumbling, crisis-prone Russian space agency Roscosmos, which has reaped a financial windfall as a result of America’s confused space policy. And matters could get worse before they get better—for NASA, at least.

Good news on government and commercial efforts

Tuesday morning, NASA and industry officials held a panel discussion to discuss human deep space exploration, which is set to commence in 2021 using the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft. For the first time in 50 years, Americans would be venturing out into deep space, visiting asteroids, and proving out the technologies for traveling to Mars.

And, rare among NASA programs, SLS’s funding and timeline were in good shape. SLS is running five months ahead of schedule and is below budget, one industry official crowed. Meanwhile, Orion is on schedule for a test flight aboard a Delta IV rocket late next year. Not bad for a couple of programs rolling along on a flat, $3-billion-plus annual budget.

And, rare among NASA programs, SLS’s funding and timeline were in good shape. SLS is running five months ahead of schedule and is below budget, one industry official crowed.

Even amid the optimism, some cautionary notes emerged about whether the program can stay on schedule due to Congress’s inability to pass annual budgets on time and the automatic budget cuts caused by sequestration. “I learned to live and operate under continuing resolutions, and I thought I had that mastered,” said NASA Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier. “Then we got sequester, and they upped the game on me.”

At a separate event later Tuesday, NASA and Bigelow Aerospace announced the results of a study conducted by Bigelow urging that the space agency develop an approach to cislunar space exploration based on the successful Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. For a relatively modest investment of public funds, NASA partnered with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation to develop two new rockets and cargo freighters to serve the International Space Station (ISS).

Company Founder Robert Bigelow—who has ambitious plans for private space stations and lunar bases—told reporters that the issue of property rights in space needs to be clarified. He said he would make a formal request to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Tranportation (AST) to review the issue by the end of this year.

The next day, NASA celebrated the success of the COTS program, which ended after Orbital completed a successful demonstration flight of its Cygnus freighter to ISS late last month. Orbital is now in the advanced preparation stages for its ISS flight under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, now scheduled to for mid-December. SpaceX has already flown two CRS missions and is preparing for a third one in February.

During the celebration, NASA officials looked ahead to the success of its Commercial Crew Program, which has been run under COTS-style rules. Three companies—Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation and SpaceX—are competing to develop crew vehicles that will transport astronauts to ISS on a commercial basis.

Even as agency officials were celebrating COTS and looking ahead hopefully to human flights, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin released an audit illustrating how the COTS really isn’t working very well for the Commercial Crew Program. The report found that while the three commercial partners are making good process, NASA faces a number of challenges, including a failure thus far to develop a life cycle cost estimate for the program and the need to coordinate with the Federal Aviation Administration and US Air Force.

Although NASA’s challenges are solvable, there is a much bigger problem that is well beyond the space agency’s control. Congress has refused to fully fund the program, which has already caused the start of commercial flights to slip from 2015 to 2017. “Specifically, the Commercial Crew Program has received only 38 percent of requested funding for fiscal years 2011 through 2013, bringing the current aggregate budget gap to $1.1 billion when comparing funding requested to funding received,” the audit found.

The delays could worsen unless the program is fully funded, which will result in more money being spent to launch US astronauts to ISS on Russian Soyuz spacecraft. “Between 2012 and 2017, NASA will pay Roscosmos $1.7 billion to ferry 30 NASA astronauts and international partners to and from the ISS at prices ranging from $47 million to more than $70 million per person. After 2017, NASA hopes to obtain transportation to the ISS from American spaceflight companies,” according to the report.

Nobody has ever said Congress was very good at math, but this policy makes no sense whatsoever.

The lack of US crew capability is bad in every way. ISS is solely reliant on a single transportation system—Soyuz—to get astronauts up and down. There is no backup. US access to the station is limited while the number of crewmembers aboard is stuck at six. Any of the three planned American crew vehicles would increase the crew size to seven, allowing one astronaut to focus full-time attention on conducting research and experiments.

Rather than paying American companies to fill the spaceflight gap, Congress has decided to spend $3 billion per year on SLS and Orion, which won’t fly with astronauts until 2021, while keeping commercial crew spending stuck at just over $500 million annually. Meanwhile, they’ve sent nearly $2 billion to Russia for crew services.

Nobody has ever said Congress was very good at math, but this policy makes no sense whatsoever.

A coming train wreck?

Further schedule delays could push the start of commercial flights toward 2020, which is the year in which ISS is scheduled for decommissioning. A three-year slip would render the entire program moot if the station program ends according to the current plan.

NASA wants to extend ISS operations until 2028, which a study has found to be technically feasible. The main goal is to complete research to help pave the way extended human missions to deep space. The station is also host to an increasing number of commercial microgravity experiments. However, it’s uncertain whether the space agency’s international partners—Russia, Europe, Japan, and Canada—will agree to the extension. Several of the partners appear to be more interested in pursuing new projects than in continuing an old one whose annual operating costs are high.

Meanwhile, ISS soon could have some serious competition. China is positioning its multi-module space station—whose first element will be launched in 2018—for the post-ISS era. It is eagerly recruiting international partners to fly astronauts and experiments aboard the facility.

Bigelow Aerospace’s plans for private space stations is dependent upon the ability of NASA’s commercial crew program to produce affordable human space transportation systems. The company is initially targeting sovereign governments as station tenants. If Bigelow is successful, the company could draw away support from NASA’s efforts to continue ISS operations. The effort would also build up the space capabilities of foreign nations.

One option would be for NASA to decommission ISS in 2020, and to purchase a replacement space station from Bigelow. Perhaps a smaller station purchased on a commercial basis and focused primarily on medical research would be affordable and much less costly to run and supply.

NASA’s hope is to significantly reduce the cost of ISS operations through its commercial cargo and crew programs to free up money for deep space exploration.

There are potential problems with this approach, however. How easy and costly it would be to replicate the research capabilities that ISS possesses is an interesting question. The option also includes a degree of risk in that it’s currently unknown whether Bigelow will succeed with his private venture. If Bigelow’s stations or business plan fail, NASA could end up throwing away a valuable asset with no easy way to replace it.

It might end up having to do the first option, regardless. There are serious questions about whether the space agency could simultaneously support a vigorous deep space exploration program using the expensive SLS/Orion combination while still maintaining an aging space station in orbit. NASA’s budgets are already squeezed, and the future doesn’t look much better.

NASA’s hope is to significantly reduce the cost of ISS operations through its commercial cargo and crew programs to free up money for deep space exploration. Although the cargo program is proving successful, the crew effort is endangered by Congress’s unwillingness to fully fund it.

This refusal is, in turn, endangering Bigelow’s commercial space station efforts, which could help reduce the unit costs of crew and cargo vehicles that would serve both ISS and the company’s private space stations. Bigelow also needs his commercial orbital program to succeed first before trying to place modules on the Moon or send them off on deep space missions.

The bottom line is that the future of the American space effort is very much in flux. What was supposed to be a week for celebrating success and looking toward a bright future has turned cloudy and threatening. It’s likely to remain so for quite some time to come.


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