Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish on NASA

On Sunday, flights to the ISS resumed for the first time since the retirement of the Shuttle last summer. As I’ve discussed here in the past, NASA is now paying Russia $62M per ticket to deliver astronauts to the space station (included in that price is the use of the Soyuz spacecraft as a three-person “lifeboat” for the station while docked to it, a function that the Shuttle never served because it could only stay in orbit for a couple weeks). Given that the Russians are now monopoly providers for both these services, the price is likely to go up with any renewed contracts in future years. The only realistic solution to this problem is to get multiple competitive domestic providers on line as soon as possible, which NASA is attempting to do with its commercial crew program. They requested a budget for it of $850M for 2012. A few weeks ago, both Lori Garver, the NASA deputy administrator and George Nield, the head of the FAA’s office of commercial space transportation warned that if NASA didn’t get its full budget request, it would either delay the program, or reduce the number of competitors, or both. According to Ms. Garver, a one-year delay would result in an additional cost of at least $450M for continued purchase of space transportation services from the Russians.

But last summer, the House only appropriated about $300M, and earlier this month the Senate appropriated $500M, neither of which is near the $850M request. Unfortunately, as expected, as part of the “minibus” appropriations bill this week, they split the difference, and while this hasn’t been confirmed, it appears that NASA ends up with about $400M for commercial crew, less than half of the request, while continuing to fully fund Shuttlyndra. What this means for the program is unclear, but NASA will definitely have to replan and rescope. The result is unlikely to be good for either the taxpayers or space development.

[Update a few minutes after posting]

OK, it’s official. Over at Space Politics, Jeff Foust has the breakdown on the numbers, and some notes:

Commercial crew, as previously noted here, gets $406 million in the bill, $100 million of which is set aside until certain acquisition milestones for the human exploration program are achieved. The report notes that NASA’s plans for the program have assumed much higher funding levels than what Congress is provided, and thus “NASA is directed to work expeditiously to alter its management and acquisition strategy for the program as necessary to make the best use of available resources”. This approach, the report adds, could include “an accelerated down-select process that would concentrate and maximize the impact of each appropriated dollar.”

There are currently several players, some funded by NASA and others self-funding through what are called “Space Act Agreements.” NASA had hoped to keep several companies involved and to eventually narrow down to no fewer than two, to maintain competition and redundancy. This budget doesn’t prevent that, but as is suggested, it may not be possible to keep the broader competition going as long as had been originally hoped for. The biggest concern should be that Congress will continue to be penurious with this vital program while fully funding the unneeded pork of the heavy lifter, resulting in program delays (with associated costs, as described above) and perhaps only a single provider in the end.