House Hearing Spotlights Concerns About NASA Commercial Cargo Program

The House held a hearing on NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program last week. The majority Republicans and minority Democrats both expressed concerns about the schedule and reliability of cargo delivery to the International Space Station by SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation set to begin within the next year. Republicans seem a bit more skeptical about the effort, however, questioning market viability and other issues.

Press releases from both parties describing the hearing and their concerns follow after the break.


Critical Questions Remain on the Viability of Commercial Cargo Efforts to Support the Space Station

Essential Systems and Capabilities Behind Schedule, Remain Untested

Washington D.C. – Today the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing to evaluate the progress and viability of commercial launch service providers to supplement our international partners in supplying cargo to the International Space Station (ISS). Once the Space Shuttle program is retired following the STS-135 mission, currently scheduled for July 8th 2011, NASA plans to rely on new commercial launch service providers to supply, maintain, and utilize the multi-billion dollar ISS.

In his opening remarks, Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) noted that Congress has generally been supportive of NASA’s commercial cargo efforts. However, he said that “Too often, requests for information have been met with a veil of secrecy and claims of company proprietary information.” Subsequently, Palazzo said, “I want to remind NASA and the commercial partners that you are spending taxpayer money, and lots of it. So you will not be exempt from oversight and financial scrutiny.”

In closing, Palazzo said, “NASA has spent $1.25 billion over the last five years and it is my firm hope that before the year is out we will have real proof that this investment has been worthwhile.”

NASA has spent $500 million since 2005 on the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, intended to demonstrate commercial cargo delivery capabilities to the ISS from two commercial partners, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Science Corporation (Orbital). Despite initial assurances that NASA would not expend any money to buy services until these systems were fully demonstrated, NASA has spent over $466 million toward the purchase of cargo delivery services even though no demonstration flights to the ISS have been performed.

“We – NASA, Congress, our space station partners – expect these companies to perform,” Full Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) told the witnesses today. “It is my sincere hope and desire that they perform and meet their contract goals. There is no plan B if they encounter severe technical or schedule challenges, and I want them to succeed.”

Chairman Hall has been highly skeptical of the approach the Obama Administration has chosen. “I simply regret that there continues to be so much uncertainty about our nation’s ability to reliably get cargo to Station with the final Shuttle flight now less than two months away,” Hall said. “It is unfortunate that the decisions of this Administration have created so many questions and turmoil in our outlook for space.”

While evaluating technical milestones and progress in developing commercial cargo capabilities, today’s hearing did not address more fundamental questions, such as whether there is credible economic demand for services to low earth orbit – governmental or non-governmental – to provide an economic rationale that makes commercial space ventures financially viable.

Ms. Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, testified that commercial launch providers “will provide safe, reliable and affordable transportation of cargo and astronauts to low Earth orbit” and that commercial providers would “save U.S. taxpayers significant money.” Ms. Shotwell said that “By leveraging private funding with federal investment, controlling our costs and developing a diverse customer base, we are able to offer competitive pricing to our commercial and government customers.”

Testifying on behalf of NASA, Mr. William H. Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of the Space Operations Mission Directorate, told the Committee that he is pleased with the progress of both SpaceX and OSC in developing cargo transportation systems. Gerstenmaier said that “NASA sees no reason to doubt either company’s ability to achieve its desired objectives – that of demonstrating commercial cargo delivery to and from LEO. Both partners have aggressive, success-oriented schedules, and are facing challenges typical of a spaceflight development program.” Gerstenmaier conceded that both companies have faced delays in reaching milestones. He also claimed that these delays were “not unexpected,” and “have not required any additional NASA funding.”

Representing Orbital on today’s panel, Mr. Frank Culbertson, Jr., Senior Vice President and Deputy General Manager of the Advanced Programs Group, noted that the ISS may perhaps need to be successfully resupplied for decades. He said “It is important to take a long view on this job.” Culbertson further noted, “It’s true that the technical challenges are also large, but these will be resolved over time by the professionals working the program.”

Today’s hearing was the first in what will be a series of hearings the Science, Space, and Technology Committee will be holding to provide close oversight of commercial space launch capabilities.


Subcommittee Democrats Seek Assurance of Reliable and Timely Commercial Cargo Capability for the International Space Station

Today the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing to review the status of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) commercial cargo initiative and the overall readiness of commercial cargo providers to support the International Space Station (ISS). Members heard testimony and questioned witnesses from NASA, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and representatives from the two companies that have Space Act Agreements under the Commercial Orbital Transportations Services (COTS) Project and the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Program, Space Exploration Technologies (Space X) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital).

In 2006, NASA laid out a two-phase plan to ensure that vital equipment and supplies could be delivered to the ISS after the retirement of the space shuttle. In phase one, companies would be required to develop and demonstrate the capability to safely deliver cargo to the ISS. In phase two, when confident that commercial cargo sources were available, NASA would sign long-term CRS contracts with commercial cargo providers. However, NASA signed long-term resupply contracts with SpaceX and Orbital before either company had successfully demonstrated a commercial cargo flight. Furthermore, in 2010, NASA canceled the Constellation Program, which would have served as a contingency backup in case commercial cargo services were delayed or failed. Commercial providers are now fully responsible for the critical task of resupplying the ISS when the Space Shuttle retires in July.

In his opening remarks, Acting Ranking Member Jerry F. Costello (D-IL) said, “I hope to hear today how NASA, Congress, and commercial providers can work together to identify any remaining risks to reliable and timely commercial cargo operations, develop realistic expectations for the program, and ensure NASA has executable contingency options if commercial services are unavailable. We must ensure NASA has sustainable commercial cargo services for the life of the ISS without exposing the U.S. government to too much financial and programmatic risk.

Mr. William H. Gerstenmaier from NASA and Ms. Cristina Chaplain from GAO agreed that there is still a risk of delays. Mr. Gerstenmaiersaid, “NASA is pleased with the steady progress both companies continue to make in their cargo development efforts. While both companies have experienced technical and schedule challenges to date, that is not uncommon with major aerospace development efforts.” He emphasized that NASA anticipated startup challenges and allowed for a margin of error regarding cargo. The final Shuttle mission, STS-135, will carry supplies and spare parts that will allow the ISS to remain fully utilized through the end of 2012. Ms. Chaplain said that based on current launch dates for upcoming COTS demonstration missions, it is likely that neither commercial provider will launch its initial CRS mission on time.

Ms. Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX and Mr. Frank Culbertson of Orbital expressed confidence in their companies’ abilities to complete their agreements with NASA and begin providing cargo to the ISS in 2012. They also stressed that a large portion of the financial risk lies with them and not with the U.S. government. NASA does not pay for a delay or a failure.