As NASA celebrated the end of its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program at a press conference in Washington on Wednesday, it also made another pitch for the program following in COTS’s footsteps, the Commercial Crew Program. But as NASA leadership were calling for full funding for commercial crew, a separate report by NASA’s Inspector General said it looked increasingly likely NASA would not be able to support more than one company in the next phase of the program.
“It’s now critically important to get full funding from Congress to keep us on track to begin these launches in 2017,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in opening remarks at the COTS press conference, referring to commercial crew. He said that NASA will release the request for proposals for the next phase of the program, called Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap), next week (November 19, according to a notice by NASA earlier this month.) “In many ways, the completion of COTS is simply a passing of the torch of innovation to our partners in the commercial crew program.”
NASA requested $821 million from Congress for commercial crew in its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal. However, House appropriators only offered $500 million for the program in its spending bill, while their Senate counterparts proposed $775 million. (There’s been no recent action on either bill as appropriators await the outcome of broader House-Senate budget negotiations.) In late July, shortly before announcing plans to leave NASA, then-deputy administrator Lori Garver said the Senate figure would be good enough, but pressed for full funding to stay on schedule and “keep competition as long as possible.”
“It’s obviously a very difficult budget environment for all discretionary programs,” said Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA, during Wednesday’s press conference. “We’ve said this many times: less money means we go slower than we’d like to go. It’s a pretty straightforward equation.”
An alternative would be for NASA to downselect to a single company in the CCtCap round, a move some in Congress have endorsed to keep the program on schedule with constrained funding. “Getting the systems as soon as possible and also having competition are both goals that NASA would like to maintain through this program,” McAlister said. “I can’t say one is more important than the other.” He added they would wait to see the contents of the CCtCap proposals, due in January. “Those proposals will really dictate how fast we go and how many we have.”
Shortly after the press conference ended, NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) issued a report on the commercial crew program, identifying funding as one of several key challenges it faces. The report noted that the program has received only 38 percent of its original budget requests in fiscal years 2011 through 2013, pushing back the beginning of service to 2017. “Generally speaking, we determined that each year’s budget decrement has resulted in an additional year of schedule delay,” the report concluded. “Even if the Program receives its full budget request in future years, the cumulative difference between the Program’s initial budget requests and receipts over the life of the Program would be approximately $1.1 billion.”
The report added that continued funding shortfalls could force NASA to downselect to a single company in the upcoming CCtCap contract. “While NASA officials said they would prefer to continue to work with at least two companies until the transportation services contract, a lack of funding will likely require them to ‘down select’ to a single partner during Phase 2 of Certification [aka CCtCap], which is currently scheduled to begin in mid-2014.” The reports adds that such a downselect, while saving money in the short term, may drive up costs in the long term based on experience with other major spaceflight programs.
The OIG report includes one additional item of interest about commercial crew funding, regarding the amount being provided by the industry partners. Specific amounts of investment by the commercial crew partners—Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX—have been hard to come by; specific information has been redacted from their Space Act Agreements, and company officials have spoken only vaguely of making significant internal investments. However, according to the OIG report, the commercial crew partners have contributed “under 20 percent” of the overall development costs for the ongoing Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) effort. By comparison, the report notes that the two COTS awardees, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, contributed “roughly 50 percent” of the total development costs of their systems.