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Last Minute Push for Fully Funding NASA Commercial Spacecraft Development

Satellite Technology

Satellite Technology Feature Article

November 14, 2011

Last Minute Push for Fully Funding NASA Commercial Spacecraft Development

By Doug Mohney, Contributing Editor

An eclectic lineup of former astronauts, aerospace industry companies, and critics have sent a pair of letters to Congress supporting full funding for NASA's commercial spacecraft development program in FY 2012. NASA says it needs $850 million to move the Commercial Crew (CCDev) program along so private industry can deliver flights to the International Space Station (ISS) by the end of 2016. Failure to do so this year will result in a year's delay in having an American solution to put people into low earth orbit (LEO) along with $480 million going out of the U.S. to Russia the following year for astronaut seats on Soyuz capsules, asserts the agency.

The astronauts group letter, dated Monday, November 7, 2011 and published at a number of sites, including SpaceRef, was addressed to Senator Barbara Mikulski, chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies and Congressman Frank Wolf, chair of the House counterpart committee. Twenty-three former astronauts signed the letter, including Apollo 11's Buzz Aldrin and a whole bunch of space shuttle vets, including a couple of five mission people.

“Our space agency is going to be shipping potentially billions of dollars to Russia over the next few years to obtain seats for our astronauts – we should invest that money here in the U.S. commercial space transportation industry instead,” says the letter. “Simply put, Commercial Crew represents the most rapid way for America to get back its human space transportation capability following retirement of the Space Shuttle, and for America to end the ‘gap’ in human spaceflight. The US will be back with its own capability soonest through Commercial Crew. Without Commercial Crew, America will be on the sidelines for years and years.”

A more interesting letter comes a day later, more generically addressed to members of Congress and the Administration. Signed by “space leaders” according to the description and listing “NASA astronauts, executives, and advisors, CEOs and directors of firms large and small, space scientists, space journalists, and others” among the participants.

“ We are alarmed by possible congressional budget cuts to the $850M FY2012 budget request for NASA's Commercial Crew program – the fastest paced and surest effort to restore US human access to orbit,” says the letter. “We urge the Congress to fund the development of commercial crew launch capabilities to orbit at or very close to the full $850M request level, even if that means slowing other new development efforts within NASA.”

To be blunt, some of the signers of the group letter have their own best interests and wallets at heart. Blue Origin, Excalibur Alamaz, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX (News - Alert) have skin in the game; NASA Commercial Crew funding is either going to and/or will go to these companies in the future. Similarly, Space Florida wants more dollars into Kennedy Space Center (rather than Virginia, or any other part of the U.S.).

On the other side of the coin, you have card-carrying NASA gadflies such as NASAWatch.Com editor Keith Cowing and TEA Party in Space President and National Coordinator Mr. Andrew Gasser participating; these two guys examine and question nearly every freaking dollar NASA plans to spend in the next five years.

In the middle are noted space historian and author Andrew Chaikin, former President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation Admiral Craig Steidle,(USN Ret.), planetary sciences/suborbital rock star Alan Stern, former FAA associate administrator Patti Grace Smith, and representatives from Masten, XCOR, and the Moon Express Google (News - Alert) Lunar X-Prize Team.

There are signs Congressional  are starting to come to their senses after indulging in NASA and/or CCDev-bashing, such as a September 21 hearing that devolved into a lot of second-guessing fed by former NASA administrator Michael Griffin and a follow-up October 27 hearing where NASA officials were pressed on details for CCDev cost estimates.

Last week, Representative Sandy Adams (R-FL) strongly lined up in support of at least $500 million for commercial efforts, according to the Orlando Sentinel. In House hearings, Adams has been lukewarm at best over CCDev efforts, but a November 3 letter sent to the Chairman and the Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee puts her into the “must have” camp. Perhaps Boeing's (News - Alert) commitment to build its CST-100 manned space capsule at KSC has enlightened her thinking.

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 Jennifer Russell

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