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Atlas 5 launch
While for many commercial crew transportation is synonymous with new companies and rockets like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, ULA has proposed using its own vehicles, like the Atlas 5 (above), for the same missions. (credit: ULA)

Can commercial space win over Congress?

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When the White House unveiled its new plan for NASA last month as part of its 2011 budget proposal, presumably they knew to expect some opposition from Congress, particularly from those representing districts and states that benefitted from Constellation. Perhaps, though, they thought they could win some support from across the aisle for one aspect of the plan: development of commercial systems to ferry astronauts to low Earth orbit. After all, the logic likely went, Republicans have long supported free enterprise and efforts to turn government programs over to the private sector; surely they could support this?

That hasn’t been the case. By and large Republicans and Democrats alike have expressed skepticism at best—and dismay and even outrage at worst—about that aspect of the plan, despite its endorsement by, among others, former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich and former House Science Committee chairman Robert Walker. In Congressional hearings since the plan’s announcement only Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), long an advocate for space commercialization, wholeheartedly endorsed development of commercial crew capabilities. With a new set of hearings coming up this week by powerful House and Senate appropriators, it is still an open question whether that aspect of the plan can survive a bruising battle in Congress over the next several months.

No desire to “hitch a ride”

Those Congressional concerns about commercial crew were on display Thursday on Capitol Hill, starting with a press conference Thursday morning by eight members of Congress from the Houston area. The eight appeared with Annise Parker, the new Democratic mayor of Houston, who had been in Washington last week to lobby for, among other issues, NASA, given concerns about the effect the cancellation of Constellation will have on the Johnson Space Center there and, in turn, the regional economy.

“It is as inconceivable to me that the president would privatize the Marine Corps and hand over their job to the private sector as it is to imagine the closing down of America’s manned space program,” Rep. Culberson said.

Parker and the members of Congress referenced commercialization several times during the 40-minute press conference, suggesting that while they were not opposed to the concept, they didn’t think it should replace government-led efforts at this time. “This is not an attack on private sector participation in spaceflight,” Parker said. “We believe that the private sector can add innovation and can be a partner, but we believe that the United States needs to be the lead in this effort.”

Members at the press conference expressed concerns about relying on the commercial sector for launching NASA astronauts that ranged from the pragmatic to the ideological. “Who will be responsible for indemnifying commercial flight?” asked Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX). “Who makes the choice of who goes up? Who vets them? Do they meet a security check?”

John Culberson (R-TX), a fiscal conservative not normally supportive of big government programs, defended Constellation, likening commercialization of crew transportation to privatization of the Marines. “It is as inconceivable to me that the president would privatize the Marine Corps and hand over their job to the private sector as it is to imagine the closing down of America’s manned space program,” he said. He even considered it something of a national security risk: “If the private sector exclusively owns access to space, who owns the technology? They’d have the right to sell it to any nation on the face of the Earth?” (Not easily, thanks to the export control regime that covers space technology in the US today.)

“Imagine if America had to hitch a ride on a commercial vehicle,” he continued. “If the private sector and the Chinese and Russians control access to space, they could charge us whatever they want.”

That afternoon, a Senate hearing delved into the issues of commercial spaceflight. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), ranking member of the full Senate Commerce Committee, expressed support for commercial human spaceflight in general, but did not believe NASA should solely rely upon it yet. “I think in the end that we will have commercial capabilities, but I think this gap [in human space access] is too important to rely on just commercial,” she said, referring to her efforts to extend the shuttle program beyond its planned retirement this year (see “Shuttle supporters’ last stand?”s, The Space Review, March 15, 2010).

At the hearing, which featured a broad range of current and former government officials as well as aerospace company executives, some witnesses expressed skepticism that commercial providers could provide crew transportation on the timescales proposed, or do so cost effectively. “It may be that the complexity of developing a new government crew space transportation capability, and the difficulty of conducting spaceflight operations safely and reliably, it is not fully appreciated by those who are recommending the cancellation of the present system being developed by NASA, and the early adaptation of the presently non-existent commercial government crew delivery alternatives,” former astronaut Tom Stafford, a veteran of Gemini and Apollo, noted in his prepared testimony.

Mal Peterson, a former NASA comptroller, cited the challenges in developing human spaceflight systems as well as competing with the Russians on cost as two major obstacles for commercial crew transportation. “I believe commercial cargo will succeed very well,” he said. “However, I have my doubts about commercial crew.”

Bill Nelson
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chair of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, hinted last week that he’s considering alternative uses of the commercial crew development funding in the NASA budget proposal. (credit: J. Foust)

Tried and tested

One of the major arguments against turning to the commercial sector for human spaceflight to low Earth orbit is the lack of existing systems to provide such services. That argument was made with perhaps unmatched rhetorical flourish by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) in his statement against the new NASA plan the morning of its release. “We cannot continue to coddle the dreams of rocket hobbyists and so-called ‘commercial’ providers who claim the future of US human space flight can be achieved faster and cheaper than Constellation,” he said. “I have consistently stated the fallacy of believing the cure-all hype of these ‘commercial’ space companies, and my position has been supported time and again by both the experts and the facts.”

“If you’re going to do a solicitation tomorrow for a booster that’s going to launch a capsule that’s got people on it, it’s going to be an Atlas 5 or a Delta 4, obviously,” said Greason.

While not always mentioned by name, much of those concerns revolve around a single company: SpaceX. The company has been most frequently associated with commercial human spaceflight, given its demonstrated interest in it over the last several years (including an unexercised option in its original COTS award to develop a crewed version of its Dragon spacecraft). At the same time, though, SpaceX has been something of a lightning rod for those who worry about turning over human spaceflight to “unproven” providers, given that SpaceX has yet to launch its Falcon 9 rocket it plans to use for cargo and crew missions—that inaugural launch is scheduled for no earlier than April 12.

“The current plan is to cancel Constellation and replace it with these unproven commercial launch vehicles,” Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX) said at a March 11 press conference where he and several other members asked NASA to carry out a 30-day study of alternatives to the current plan. “In fact, one of them, if you recall, had an accident during a test firing of its engines—‘accident’ is probably too strong of a word, but had a malfunction with flames coming out the side.” He was referring to an aborted test firing of that inaugural Falcon 9 on its Cape Canaveral pad two days earlier; SpaceX performed a successful 3.5-second engine test two days later. “The administration wants to bet that, our future of human spaceflight, on unproven commercial private enterprise technology.”

The debate about SpaceX’s ability to carry out commercial human spaceflight leaves out the fact that another launch company, with a much more extensive track record, is also interested in ferrying crews to low Earth orbit: United Launch Alliance (ULA), the joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin than manufactures the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) used extensively by NASA and the Air Force for launching satellites.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden made note of that track record in defending the agency’s plans to turn to the private sector last week. “My guess is that the American workers who have successfully built and launched the Atlas 5 20 times in a row would probably disagree that US commercial spaceflight is untried and untested,” he said in a speech at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon on Tuesday.

Others have also noted the ability of the EELVs to provide crewed space transportation potentially before the Falcon 9. “Today the United States has in production two boosters with enough capability and enough reliability that I wouldn’t hesitate to put a capsule on them,” namely the Atlas 5 and Delta 4, said Jeff Greason, a member of the Augustine Committee, in a speech at the Goddard Memorial Symposium outside Washington on March 10.

“If you’re going to do a solicitation tomorrow for a booster that’s going to launch a capsule that’s got people on it, it’s going to be an Atlas 5 or a Delta 4, obviously,” he emphasized. “I’m confident that Elon [Musk] is going to make it one of these days and Falcon 9 will join that stable.”

At last week’s Senate hearing ULA president and CEO Michael Gass said his company was interested in and capable of serving the human spaceflight market. “The EELV rockets provide the quickest and safest approach for closing the gap following the retirement of the space shuttle,” he said. “We will be working with multiple companies that will compete for crew services, and we plan to provide launch services in support of their proposals.”

ULA CEO Gass said EELVs could be ready to support human missions in as little as three years—faster than the time needed to develop a crewed vehicle to be launched by them.

Some, particularly in the Defense Department, have raised concerns about having the EELV get involved in human spaceflight, fearing changes to the vehicle that would result that could increase the cost or even reduce the reliability of the vehicle by tinkering with a tried-and-true system. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee on March 10, Gary Payton, deputy under secretary of the Air Force for space programs, said that while enhanced NASA use of EELVs could be beneficial, he worried about changes to the vehicles to meet NASA requirements. “It would not be beneficial for either organization to have a unique EELV for NASA applications and a unique EELV for DoD applications,” he said. “That would aid neither agency.”

Gass, though, said that any changes to the EELV to support crewed missions should be minimal. “The basic rocket itself would remain the same, and we would add emergency detection systems that would provide the crewed vehicle with the necessary information to trigger a safe abort if needed,” he said. The vehicles could be ready to support human missions in as little as three years—faster, he said, than the time needed to develop a crewed vehicle to be launched by them.

A closing launch window for commercial crew?

Those arguments have yet to win over skeptical legislators, who either are unconvinced that the commercial sector has the capability of launching crews or simply believe that human spaceflight should remain a government-run effort. While debate about NASA’s 2011 budget, proposal and the new direction for the agency contained within it, is still at a relatively early stage, there are hints that some are eyeing the $6 billion proposed over the next five years for commercial crew development on alternatives.

The specter of reprogramming commercial crew development was raised not once but twice in questions by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, in questions he posed to witnesses in last week’s hearing. “Mr. Gass, what would happen if the Congress decided—since the Congress controls the purse strings—that we wanted to take the $6 billion projected by the president over the next five years and use that not for human certification of the commercial vehicles but instead to accelerate the R&D for a heavy lift vehicle for the Mars program?” Gass acknowledged that the additional spending would accelerate that work, but also noted the need for a balanced industrial base.

About ten minutes later, after Peterson said he believed it was unlikely a US commercial venture could do a vehicle equivalent to the Soyuz for less than $400 million a mission (compared to the Soyuz’s $150 million), Nelson said, “you’re suggesting that we might better use that $6 billion, instead of man-rating them, go make a faster and better heavy-lift vehicle.”

Nelson’s interest in continuing heavy-lift launch vehicle development is not new: he has previously suggested that one of the flaws of the new plan is that it does not continue development of such a system, which he has previously referred to as “Rocket X” but would appear to be some salvaged elements of Constellation. In his opening statement he suggested the White House and NASA erred when they used the word “cancellation” with respect to Constellation instead of “restructuring”, even though no major elements of Constellation are funded in the new budget proposal.

If some kind of heavy-lift launch vehicle development is to continue, the money needed would likely have to come from somewhere else within NASA: could Nelson be thinking of commercial crew as one source? “We’re plowing new ground here in a time of exceptional opportunity,” Nelson said at the end of the hearing. Whether this will remain an exceptional opportunity for commercial crew providers in the weeks and months to come, though, remains uncertain.