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U.S Human Spaceflight Hearing Reveals Uncertainty, Skepticism, Liability

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

October 27, 2011

U.S Human Spaceflight Hearing Reveals Uncertainty, Skepticism, Liability

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

Washington D.C. -- A House committee hearing on NASA's commercial crew program had: vendors asking for more certainty in contract arrangements, NASA asking for more money in this fiscal year to avoid a delay in flying astronauts from U.S. soil by 2016, a Congresswoman pressing the agency for details on a potential $2 billion cost overrun and committee members and panel participants talking past each other on the meaning of "commercial." And to top it all off, without getting paid more, nobody wants to accept liability in case of a fatal accident.

Held by the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology on October 24, "NASA's Commercial Crew Development Program: Accomplishments" had two panels running almost three hours in length. The first panel was a relatively cordial affair with representatives from most of the current Space Act Agreement (SAA)/ Commercial Crew Development-2 (CCDev-2) participants, including ATK (News - Alert), Boeing, Sierra Nevada Space Systems, SpaceX, and United Launch Alliance. Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin declined to participate in the hearing, a decision that won them no love from the House committee, while Isle-of-Man-based Excalibur Alamaz signed an unfunded -- and unheralded -- SAA with NASA October 17.

All participating vendors seemed to stick with two similar themes in written and verbal testimony. With "modest" and "stable" funding,  companies are confident they can start delivering astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) from Florida's Space Coast by the end of 2015 or sooner. 

However, NASA needs to define and stick to requirements if it is ultimately going to use a fixed-price contract for purchasing seats. "With a COTS approach, it is important that if prices are fixed, the terms are fixed based on milestones," said SpaceX (News - Alert) founder Elon Musk.

Boeing Vice President John Elbon kicked the door wide open on the liability issue during his written and verbal testimony.

"With limited performance history, it will be difficult for industry to insure against [flight losses] at reasonable rates," Elbon said. "As such, in order to close a business case, it will be necessary for NASA, the FAA and Congress to work together to provide indemnification and liability limitations."

In the second panel, NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier got grilled on the liability issue along with costs per seat by using Commercial Crew, and how many vendors could be supported in the next phases of the Commercial Crew program.  

Gerstenmaier said indemnification is "one of the key issues to be worked out" in a future contract phase and he expected vendor pricing per seat for a trip to the ISS to be "equal, or see slightly better" than the Russian Soyuz pricing.

Representative Donna Edwards (D-MD) lit into Gerstenmaier for details on a sudden leap in the cost of completing the CCDev program.   NASA officials had been saying it would take around $4 billion between now and by 2016, but last week Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said NASA's internal analysis said it would take $6 billion over five years. An agitated Edwards wanted to see full details on the cost estimate and how it was arrived at, including the basis of the analysis.

Throughout the panels, Representatives and vendors offered different definitions for the word "commercial." United Launch Alliance (ULA) Vice President George Sowers said since the government was buying Atlas V launch services from his company, that was "commercial" while Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL) bluntly stated that there was no market for commercial crew services if the government was the only buyer.  

Doug Mohney is a contributing editor for TMCnet and a 20-year veteran of the ICT space. To read more of his articles, please visit columnist page.

Edited by Rich Steeves

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