Thursday’s hearing of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s commercial cargo efforts did not yield much of the way of new insights or surprises about the program. It did, though, provide an opportunity for some members to express their concern about, if not skepticism regarding, the ability of Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX to carry out on their agreements to transport critical supplies to the ISS.
One theme from the hearing was a perceived lack of information from those companies, and NASA, about their efforts over the last few years. “Congress has generally been supportive of NASA’s commercial cargo efforts, but too often requests for information have been met with a veil of secrecy and claims of company proprietary information,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) in his opening statement. “I want to remind NASA and the commercial partners that you are spending taxpayer money, and lots of it, so you will not be exempt from oversight and financial scrutiny.”
Another theme, perhaps more subtle, was that commercial cargo was not a good deal, or least not a good one as other options. Members noted, as did the hearing’s charter, that in contrast to the original $500 million allocated to Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) when the commercial cargo development program started, NASA had spent or obligated through the end of FY2011 over $1.25 billion. That amount includes $288 million in cargo augmentation funding and $466 million from the follow-on Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) cargo delivery contracts. And on several occasions they noted schedule slips from the original COTS awards to both companies.
NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, along with SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell and Orbital Sciences senior vice president Frank Culbertson, defended the progress they made. Gerstenmaier, for example, said that the augmentation funds added to the COTS awards this fiscal year are for additional testing to help buy down risk (including a test launch of Orbital’s new Taurus 2 rocket) and not because either company had run into problems. “We added these augmentation milestones to help assure where we would be,” he said. “They weren’t absolutely required.”
“The amount of money that has been paid to us on the CRS contract, that has been mentioned several times as ‘extra money’ that’s been sent to the contractors, that’s not the case,” Culbertson said, describing the CRS funds as “milestone payments” for long-lead items and the like common in the commercial world. “It is a commercial endeavor, and not a traditional government cost-plus development. That’s a really big difference from what people are used to and I think some folks in the community might be having trouble understand that.”
Shotwell challenged the price-per-pound figures included in the hearing charter, which claimed that commercial cargo would cost more ($26,700/lb.) than either the shuttle ($21,268) or Progress ($18,149). The charter, she said, used an “erroneous assumption” that SpaceX would transport only 20 metric tons of cargo, the minimum under the NASA contract. SpaceX can take much more than that on the 12 flights in SpaceX’s CRS contract, she said, and “we don’t charge NASA extra for anything above the 20 metric tons.” Depending on the specific cargo carried on each flight, she said, “if we can take the full Falcon 9 performance capability to the ISS, the cost per pound of cargo is under $10,000 per pound.” (According to the SpaceX web site, Dragon can carry 6,000 kilograms to LEO; assuming each of the 12 launches under SpaceX’s $1.6-billion CRS contract is fully packed, that works out to about $10,080 per pound.) In any case, since the various cargoes to be transported will have varying densities, cost per pound may not be the best metric for determining the value of various transportation systems.
While NASA, Orbital, and SpaceX faced scrutiny from many members at the hearing, some were more positive about the effort. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a long-time supporter of commercialization efforts, backed the ongoing COTS/CRS efforts. “If we are indeed gambling on two companies, I think it’s a good bet,” he said. SpaceX in particular got a vote of support from a non-committee member who, in unusual move, formally introduced Shotwell. Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX), a freshman member whose district includes SpaceX’s testing facility in McGregor, Texas, said he was “proud” of the company’s efforts. “It is important that we in Congress do all that we can to make sure that we highlight companies such as SpaceX,” he said.
Some members seemed resigned that commercial providers are the only option for maintaining the space station in the years to come. “You have had and will have disappointments,” Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), chairman of the full committee, said in an opening statement. “Just don’t overpromise us.”