One interesting comment by NASA administrator Charles Bolden that got lost in the broader debate was his comments about developing a “common crew module” that could be launched on multiple vehicles, rather than have each potential commercial crew provider develop their own spacecraft. “One of the things I would like to do is to help them use some of the research and development money that we have to help build a common crew module that could be interchangeably used on a number of launch vehicles,” he said. Such an approach would result in cost savings and simplify training for crews, he said. “I would like to help the commercial entities design a single crew module because it’s good for us to train in… and that can be used interchangeably on any launch vehicle. We can’t do that today, or we haven’t done that today.” Left unsaid is whether such an approach would incorporate any elements of Orion.
Bolden also said at one point that one approach he was envisioning for commercial crew transportation was a “lease” approach, suggesting that NASA would have a greater role than simply purchasing tickets on commercially-owned and -operated vehicles. “The people in the mission control center will be partially those from the company that built the vehicle and partially from NASA engineers and flight controllers,” he said. “In my operational concept, the flight director is still a NASA person, the one NASA person that you can count on being in the control center.”
In questions about Ares 1, Bolden said that the flight costs were extremely high: $4-4.5 billion a year. Later, in questions from Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), Bolden suggested that the per-flight costs of Ares 1, or a vehicle like it, were well over $1 billion. “When I talk about things that shocked me, because I wanted to use an Ares-type vehicle as a test vehicle, and when I asked the question of how much would it cost me to me fly not an Ares 1 but that kind of vehicle, then the number given me at the time was $1.6 billion per flight,” he said. Aderholt said his staff had been told that Ares 1 costs were $1.1 billion/year for three flights.
On a very separate topic, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) sharply criticized a speech given by NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver two weeks ago at the Goddard Memorial Symposium. Garver, he claimed, said in the speech that “NASA’s priorities are to fight poverty, promote world peace and societal advancement, and protect the environment.” “I’d suggest to you,” Culberson continued, “that Ms. Garver has completely lost sight of the core mission of NASA, which is to preserve and protect America’s leadership in manned space, manned and robotic space exploration; to pioneer the future in space exploration, scientific discovery, and aeronautics research; to go where no one has gone before; and explore new worlds.” (Evidently the goal of seeking out new life forms and new civilizations is deferred to the Federation.) A careful reading of Garver’s speech referred to what she said were the president’s priorities (economic development, international leadership/geopolitics, education, and the environment) and this advice: “This [NASA] budget is only sustainable in future years if we truly do as the President asks and change the way we operate as an agency to focus on our Nation’s priorities.”
Finally, two takes on yesterday’s hearing. One from the Huntsville Times: “The Obama administration’s plan to cancel the Constellation space program received heavy criticism Tuesday after a congressional subcommittee hearing.” And one from the Orlando Sentinel: “Congressional opposition to a new White House plan for NASA appears to have softened slightly, as Democratic lawmakers on a key U.S. House panel said they would be willing to work with the administration during a Tuesday hearing with NASA chief Charles Bolden.”