Wednesday’s hearing by the House Space, Science, and Technology Committee on NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program didn’t yield any major breakthroughs or other significant news. Industry members in the hearing’s first panel expressed their confidence to develop systems to transport NASA astronauts and serve other markets in the next several years, provided adequate funding. NASA’s associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier also backed the program, while NASA inspector general Paul Martin covered some of the challenges the program faces. Two themes did emerge from the nearly three-hour hearing, though.
1. Congressional skepticism is about markets, not capabilities: During the hearing several members of congress, including committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), expressed their doubts that CCDev would unfold as NASA and industry claim. However, unlike some witnesses at past hearings that expressed doubt that commercial entities had the capabilities to develop such vehicles (such as former astronaut Gene Cernan, who said in testimony last month that commercial providers “don’t yet know what they don’t know” about building crewed spacecraft), members focused on the market. Their concern was whether other markets, like space tourism, research, and flying astronauts from other nations, constituted sufficient markets.
Some witnesses, like John Elbon of Boeing and Steve Lindsey of Sierra Nevada Corp., saif their business cases closed even if they only secured NASA business. Still, some members wondered if investing $6 billion over five years (NASA’s estimated cost of CCDev; some committee members asked for more details about the analysis NASA used to come up with that estimate) was a better deal than simply purchasing additional Soyuz flights, even if the services eventually offered by US companies were at a lower per-seat price than Russia, citing the amortization of that investment as well as concerns about costs to the government for indemnifying commercial providers. Members like Hall and Johnson, as well as Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), did not seem immediately convinced by arguments from NASA and industry.
2. CCDev’s FY12 budget is looking increasingly likely to be no more than $500 million: As NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver warned last week, Gerstenmaier said that funding CCDev at $500 million (the current Senate mark) rather than the administration’s request of $850 million would result in a one-year delay in vehicles entering service, to 2017, with the result that NASA would have to pay $480 million to Russia for an additional year of flight services. However, when asked by committee members, Gerstenmaier said that one-year delay would be the only major impact provided the program was adequately funded in future years. He added that NASA was still about a year away from making a decision to buy additional Soyuz seats.
Those comments, and the response, suggest there’s no major push among committee members to lobby House appropriators and fellow members to increase the CCDev budget above the Senate’s version. (Notably, they did not ask about the effects on the program if the House version of the budget, with only $312 million for CCDev, passed.) Senate leaders indicate they will finally vote on the “minibus” appropriations bill that includes NASA next Tuesday night, with “a quick turnaround” in the House shortly thereafter, according to POLITICO. So for advocates of CCDev seeking full funding, time is running out.