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Dear NASA: Split the Difference with Congress on Commercial Crew

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

March 05, 2012

Dear NASA: Split the Difference with Congress on Commercial Crew

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

March 5, 2012

The Honorable Charles Bolden 
National Aeronautics and Space Administration 
NASA Headquarters 
Washington DC 20546-0001

Dear Administrator Bolden:

On Wednesday, March 7, you go into the lion's den twice in one day, with hearings before both House and Senate committees. You're probably going to get beat up over the Commercial Crew program (CCDev) . Again. And there's mischief afoot to push a single “dream team” which sounds like code for “Boeing (News - Alert)/ULA continued launch monopoly.”

While I appreciate the thought that NASA would like to keep as many companies as possible in the next round of the Commercial Crew program, it is time for some more “tough choices.” Some vendors -- unfunded or not -- will have to be cut 

Congress and the media need to hear three key points on March 7:

1) Near-term -- within 3-4 years -- U.S. manned launch capability to low earth orbit, weaning our access to the $100 billion International Space Station from dependency from a sole source, foreign supplier. 

2) American hardware, American jobs, American manufacturing to insource the capability -- because we're the only country on the block that can do it.

3) Competition keeps vendors innovative and price sensitive. Moving to a single “dream team” -- whatever decodes to -- will end up removing any incentives vendors have to be price competitive.

But NASA and the Commercial Crew program need to do their part as well. Specifically:

Terminate unfunded Space Act Agreements -- these take up staff time if not transferrable money-- for Excalibur Almaz and ATK (News - Alert) Liberty.   If you're going to pump up American jobs and American manufacturing, you don't need to have a recycled Soviet-era capsule based in the Isle-of-Man (Excalibur Almaz) or a rocket with a French-made second stage (Liberty) in the portfolio. Do you really look like you are providing a subsidy for ArianeSpace, a competitor of the U.S. launch industry?  

Move Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser to unfunded Space Act Agreements.   Blue Origin needs to act like Sierra Nevada on the PR field while Sierra Nevada needs to find a sugar daddy like Jeff Bezos. Both manned spacecraft efforts appear to be less technically ready than either Boeing's CTS (News - Alert)-100 or the SpaceX Dragon capsule. Blue Origin has indicated its pockets are deep enough to continue development regardless of government funding while Sierra Nevada should be encouraged to work with the private sector to raise the capital necessary to finish development.   The emergence of Stratolaunch and talk of private sector efforts to operate the Space Shuttle commercially indicate there is potential for the investment community to fund Dream Chaser.

Fund ULA Atlas V rocket development to develop interfaces to put Blue Origin and Dream Chaser spacecraft on the rocket if the latter two companies wish to continue development using their own or third-party private funding. Development funding should be contingent upon Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada committing to continue their work towards flight-ready spacecraft within four years.

Downselect to fund two teams: Boeing CTS-100/Atlas V and SpaceX (News - Alert) Dragon/Falcon 9. If you put roughly $200 million per year per vendor across 4 years, that's an average of $400 million per year -- what Congress put in for FY2012 -- and $800 million per vendor total.   Given the public statements made by both companies, $800 million to finish and fly a manned spacecraft should be adequate. 

Edited by Jennifer Russell

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