NASA hopes to avoid major budget shortfalls in commercial space initiative

CBS News

COCOA BEACH, FL--The Obama administration has asked Congress for $830 million in fiscal 2013 to fund on-going development of new commercial manned spacecraft to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. But NASA only got half of what it asked for in 2012, a cut that effectively pushed the first operational launch back one year to 2017, and program officials said Tuesday any similar cuts in 2013 and beyond could push the program to the brink of irrelevance.

A commercial manned spacecraft approaches the International Space Station in this computer graphic. Boeing is one of several companies competing for NASA funding to develop new private-sector space taxis. (Credit: Boeing)
That's because the space station is the primary destination for private-sector spacecraft and the government currently is committed to operating the lab complex only through 2020. While NASA and its partners hope to keep the station going beyond that, funding is not assured.

If Congress significantly reduces funding for the commercial crew initiative again, if NASA only ends up with $300 million to $400 million per year for the next five years instead of the $800 million or so per year that's currently envisioned, "I would say it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to do this program," said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA headquarters.

"We couldn't get there," he told reporters at an industry conference in Cocoa Beach. "Just one test fight is going to be a couple of hundred million dollars, probably. So that's your whole year's funding, right? So it doesn't really make sense at that kind of funding level. If we felt like that's all we could get, we would definitely re-evaluate the program."

But he said he was hopeful it won't come to that.

"We're definitely seeing progress," he said. "We believe the 830 is achievable, the president's budget request sort of balanced all the things NASA's trying to do. We've got several months ahead of us to communicate with Congress the importance of that."

McAlister and other senior NASA managers met with their industry counterparts Tuesday in Cocoa Beach for a briefing on the requirements of the next round of contracts in the commercial crew initiative. Proposals are due by March 23 and two or more contracts are expected to be awarded by the end of summer.

Unlike two previous rounds, which focused on spacecraft, launcher or subsystem development, the goal this time is for industry to present proposals covering the spacecraft, rocket booster and ground systems.

"This time, we're looking for an integrated solution," said Ed Mango, the commercial crew program manager at the Kennedy Space Center. "We don't want a proposal that says I have a great spacecraft, NASA you figure out the launch vehicle. That's not acceptable. This time, we want a launch vehicle, spacecraft, a mission operations system that they plan to use and a ground operations system. All those combined say we now have a solution that the government would be very interested in purchasing in the future for service."

NASA hopes to award two or more Commercial Crew Integrated Capability Initiative contracts with values ranging from $300 million to $500 million each. The contracts will run for 21 months, through May 2014. NASA has asked competitors to include optional milestones beyond the initial contract period that could pave the way for a manned test flight.

"If we get the funding that's in the president's budget, likely by 2017 we'll be able to have an operational crew transportation system," McAlister said. "If we have less money than that, obviously it'll slip that date out a little bit further. So we hope to get it's soon as possible.

"We have a commitment to the ISS for lifetime to 2020, so that limits (a company's) return on investment. I think at NASA, we're hopeful the ISS lifetime will be extended, but we don't have the commitment from the government for that, so we've sort of got to work with what we've got. And so, we don't want to slip that out too far because then the business case becomes a little bit more difficult."

NASA's struggle to fund the commercial crew initiative is difficult for many in the agency to understand, especially given that delays due to budget shortfalls increase the number of seats aboard Soyuz spacecraft that NASA must purchase from the Russians to carry U.S. and partner astronauts to and from the space station.

The six seats that will be used this year cost NASA $51 million each. Six more will be needed in 2013, at a price of $55.9 million each, and 12 more will be used in 2014 and 2015. Those seats will go for $62.7 million each. That works out to $1.4 billion to Russia for Soyuz seats between now and the end of 2015. NASA plans to negotiate contracts for the additional seats that will be needed in 2016 and beyond as required, depending on when a commercial U.S. spacecraft is ready for operational use.

Asked if he was frustrated by the budget process and NASA's extended dependence on the Russians for access to the space station, McAlister said "I think it was surprising to a lot of us that we would allow our indigenous human spaceflight capability to lapse."

"I've always thought we would have follow-on system when we retired the shuttle," he said. "It's a very complicated process and there's no one reason for why we didn't, but here we are today, we don't have a follow-on system.

"So right now, I'm just focused on ensuring that gap is going to be a short as possible. ... We have to communicate the importance of that to the U.S. Congress. There are lots of worthy programs, not only in NASA but within the federal government. So there's a lot of competition for those resources and so we need to communicate why we think this activity is important."