Pay the Americans Now, or Pay the Russians Later

I’m attending the International Symposium on Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico. Also attending is Alan Boyle, science correspondent for MSNBC, who just put up a piece with the same title as this post, in response to the keynote speech that NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver gave here this morning.

We are currently dependent on the Russians for lifeboat services and crew access to and from the International Space Station (we’ve actually been dependent on them for lifeboats for over a decade, since it was first permanently occupied, because Shuttle was never able to serve that role due to limited life on orbit). The latest contract costs $450 million per year (and that’s likely to go up over time, given their monopoly).

NASA’s proposed solution to this is to quickly develop multiple competitive domestic commercial providers for these services, and they requested $850 million for the 2012 budget to support this activity. The House appropriations markup was less than $300 million, and the Senate proposed $500 million. Garver said in response to a question that if they don’t get the full requested amount, it will delay the program at least a year. In other words, in order to save $350 million now, they will pay at least $450 million later (and likely more if the price has gone up by then).

Meanwhile, the same financial whizzes in the Senate insist that NASA spend two billion dollars next year on a giant rocket that will certainly not fly for several years, will not in any way address this problem, and is unneeded even for the problem that it is intended to address. In other words, business as usual in Washington.