Speaking at the meeting Wednesday of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington, NASA administrator Charles Bolden made another pitch—this time to a rather sympathetic audience—for the agency’s commercial crew program.
“If NASA had received the president’s requested funding for this program then,” Bolden said, referring to the rollout of the program three years ago, “we would not have been forced to recently sign a new contract with the Russians for Soyuz transportation.” Those earlier cuts, he said, have pushed back commercial crew to 2017, “and even this delayed availability is in question if Congress does not fully support the president’s 2014 request for our commercial crew program.”
“Further delays in our commercial crew program and the impact on our human spaceflight program are unacceptable,” he said. “That’s why we need the full $821 million the president has requested in next year’s budget to keep us on track for our 2017 deadline.”
The commercial crew program has frequently been seen as being in conflict with the agency’s Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft for limited funding, particularly in the eyes of some members of Congress who think NASA is favoring commercial crew in favor of SLS and Orion. “The either-or debate exists one place that I know of, and that’s in the Congress,” he said. “And it is a a false debate that is built on my inability to convince critical members of Congress” that both commercial crew and SLS/Orion are essential aspects of NASA’s long-term plans. “The argument that it’s either heavy lift or commercial crew is a fallacious one.”
After Bolden completed his talk and left, COMSTAC heard a different take on commercial crew from Capitol Hill. “I think there’s been some frustration on the Hill at how the commercial crew program over the last few years has unfolded,” said Tom Culligan, legislative director for Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. “There wasn’t a clear vision and path and strategy laid out from day one, with buy-in from the Hill and with the stakeholders in the community, about how we were going to proceed on this program.”
That frustration, Culligan suggested, is because NASA hasn’t moved fast enough to select a company to develop a crew transportation system. “I think the decision early on to try and spread resources for crew to low Earth orbit to as many people as possible maybe wasn’t the best decision,” he said. “The Congress did not buy off on a program to provide development subsidies to a large number of entities out there. They bought off on a program to get American astronauts to low Earth orbit and Station as quickly as possible and as affordably as possible. And I think there was a disconnect there, maybe, between what people at NASA’s priorities were and Congress’s understanding of priorities were.”
“I don’t think today you find people on Capitol Hill who say we shouldn’t have this program, the way you did a few years ago,” he continued, but that there was “bipartisan concern” about how it’s being run. “I think you’ve got some people who are upset, maybe, at how the program was run, particularly the first couple of years. But now we’re all in it, we need to resolve it, we need to have that ability as quickly as possible.”
As for Bolden’s call for funding commercial crew at the requested level in 2014, Culligan did not sound optimistic. “Say, overnight, there was 100-percent consensus that we wanted to fund this at the President’s level. I’m not sure the resources are there. I don’t know where you find $300 million and change in this environment,” he said, referring to the approximate difference between the program’s 2013 funding ($525 million before rescission and sequestration) and the $821 million requested for 2014. At the same time, though, he said, Congress would not be happy with any delays beyond 2017 in bringing commercial crew into service. “NASA is going to have find a way to make it work with the allocation that we have and what we’re able to devote to it.”