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Editorial | A Feckless Blame Game on ISS Crew Access

U.S. lawmakers are understandably concerned these days about NASA’s continued reliance on Russia for international space station crew transport, but their attempts to lay blame on the agency and the White House rest heavily on distortions of fact, some of them blatant.

Perhaps the biggest whopper came from Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the House Science space subcommittee, who in a statement released April 4 cited U.S. President Barack Obama’s cancellation of NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program as the cause. “When the Obama Administration ended the Constellation program, our nation was forced to depend upon Russian rockets to carry American astronauts into space and maintain a U.S. presence on the International Space Station (ISS),” the lawmaker said.

That statement is more than disingenuous — it’s flat-out false. As anyone who’s been paying attention for the last 10 years knows, temporary reliance on Russia for space station crew access was built into former U.S. President George W. Bush’s blueprint for transitioning from NASA’s space shuttle, which he correctly marked for retirement following the 2003 Columbia disaster, and Constellation. 

Even had Mr. Obama embraced Constellation, NASA would still be dependent on Russia because under Mr. Bush’s plan, vehicles for space station crew transport would not have been ready before 2015 or 2016. 

During an April 8 NASA budget hearing, Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) suggested NASA would at least be close to restoring crew access had Constellation continued, but that runs counter to the findings of an independent panel chaired by former Lockheed Martin chief Norman Augustine, which concluded that the necessary vehicles would not be ready before 2017. Moreover, that scenario assumed the space station, along with its yearly operations and maintenance bill, would be scuttled in 2016.

Meanwhile, one of Mr. Palazzo’s colleagues on the space subcommittee, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), said during a March 27 hearing that the Obama administration could have reversed the decision to retire the space shuttle, which was mothballed in 2011. But by the time Mr. Obama took office in 2009 — he didn’t cancel Constellation until the following year — the dismantling of the space shuttle enterprise, including infrastructure, production chains and personnel, was well underway. Reversing that, while theoretically possible, would have cost untold billions of dollars and condemned NASA to another decade — at least — of reliance on an outdated system with safety issues and no ability to support human exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit.

The administration’s loudest critics — most of whom hail from states heavily invested in the congressionally mandated and shuttle-derived Space Launch System and Orion deep-space crew capsule — have drawn a bead on the Commercial Crew Program, NASA’s bid to restore independent U.S. crew access to the station. These lawmakers complain that the program is siphoning funds from SLS and Orion and note that it is behind schedule.

True, the commercial crew taxis were supposed to begin operating in 2015 — the target date is now late 2017 — but it’s also true that their development has been consistently and substantially underfunded by Congress.  

During the April 8 hearing, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, tried to argue otherwise, saying Congress has consistently funded the program at the authorized level. That may be true, but there’s a big difference between NASA authorization bills — in recent years they’ve been drafted by SLS and Orion supporters — and NASA budget requests, which reflect the agency’s best estimate of what it will take to execute a program on schedule. The fact is, Congress has provided just $2 billion of the $3 billion NASA requested for the Commercial Crew Program from its 2011 start date through 2014, a 33 percent shortfall.

Thus NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has something concrete to point to — and never misses an opportunity to do so — when questioned about delays to the program. By suggesting that commercial crew simply hasn’t delivered, lawmakers divert attention from the fact that NASA likely could have such a service available more quickly, and perhaps at less cost, if it dropped its insistence on keeping at least two providers in the competitive mix. 

Those who bemoan NASA’s reliance on Russia, yet shortchange the very program designed to fix that problem, are at the same time adamant that the agency spend nearly $3 billion per year on SLS and Orion, vehicles that for all their advertised capability still have no place to go. Their size and cost make them poorly suited for space station missions, even as a backup to commercial crew taxis, and in any case the first SLS-Orion crewed test flight won’t happen before 2021.

NASA currently lacks an independent crew launching capability because of decisions made a decade ago, the consequences of which were fully understood and accepted at the time. The longer this situation lasts, however, the more culpable the current group of decision-makers will become. 

In that vein, the current criticisms of NASA and the White House might be viewed as a pre-emptive strike by lawmakers who sense their own culpability. But in pressing arguments that fail to stand up to even modest scrutiny, they not only undermine their credibility, they give NASA cover to pursue a Commercial Crew Program approach that might not be sustainable.  

If restoring independent U.S. access to station is as important as the administration’s congressional detractors say, they should fully fund the Commercial Crew Program, even if that means slowing development work on SLS and Orion, while ratcheting up the pressure on NASA to select a single provider. Only then can Congress truly say it has done its part to resolve the matter.



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Article Comments

Warren/Brian -- I think you're right about the Orion/SLS folks, but wrong about Palazzo.

First of all, Chairman Lamar Smith and Steven Palazzo last year sent a strong signal in favor of commercial crew when they moved an authorization bill that reflected 100% of sequestration cuts and still provided $700 million to commercial crew, slightly more than the final appropriated level for FY2014. It was the Appropriators that initially didn't appear to value the urgency of a U.S. crew access to ISS. Also, you haven't seen Smith or Palazzo making the crazy arguments about cutting commercial crew by 20% just to give SLS a little bit more money ($100-200m).

Of course you're right to call out ALL of the blame mongering, on all partisan sides. We're still fighting over "who killed the Shuttle" -- the vehicle that the NASA of Apollo developed with too little money, operated at too high a cost, and failed OVER AND OVER AGAIN to replace or supplant with something cheaper and safer at getting human beings to/from LEO. And when COTS succeeded at replicating small pressurized cargo delivery/return/disposal, people inside NASA and Congress fought over who could kill this dangerous new tool of Competitively Awarded Funded Space Act Agreements.

If these politicians and administrators really believed access to space was as important as they claim, they would stop bickering and start negotiating to pursue multiple parallel paths with the available resources.

Commercial Crew is receiving a pittance in funding compared with SLS/Orion. Somewhere around two billion since 2011 and so far we have 3 crew capable craft nearing early flight and abort tests. Even if they don't fly until early 2017 for another 2-3 billion, we could end up with the choice of 3 vehicle options for NASA, DoD and commercial customers such as Bigalow to access space. On the other hand, SLS/Orion will continue to spend 3 Billion a year until first manned flight in 2021. That equates to something near 21 Billion more dollars not to mention what has been spent so far. Once flying, SLS/Orion will not be used for ISS access or resupply. It is just too large and expensive. We should not let congress continue their self destructive decision making by forcing NASA to down select to one vehicle. Instead they should complete their vehicles and compete for launch contracts. Rational people prefer multiple provider options instead of a single point of failure. We need Crew capability now. There is nothing waiting on SLS since now missions are yet planned or any mission specific hardware developed.

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