Support in Congress for NASA’s commercial crew effort is becoming stronger despite continuing opposition from some quarters, according to Jim Muncy of PoliSpace.
Speaking on Saturday at the Space Access 12 conference in Phoenix, Muncy said that more Congressional leaders have realized that the commercial crew program is the best and fastest way to restoring the nation’s ability to launch astronauts into space.
Muncy said that although most everyone would like to see a thriving commercial space industry, there are differences in Congress over just how much the federal government should be involved in helping to make it happen.
He also said that the composition of Congress could change in the future as elected officials retire or are defeated. These changes could increase support for commercial programs.
As for the Space Launch System (SLS) designed to launch the Orion Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle, Muncy questioned whether the launch vehicle would get built. NASA plans to launch an unmanned Orion aboard a Delta IV booster in 2014 as part of a flight test. The mission would call into question whether SLS is actually needed for deep space exploration, especially with crewed Orion flights on SLS not beginning until 2021, Muncy said.
NASA is currently spending a combined $3 billion per year on SLS and Orion, despite an effort by the Obama Administration to cancel both programs. Congress decided that the industrial base “needed to be fed,” Muncy said. However, there is only $3 billion available as opposed to the $5 billion that is probably needed.
He said that some projects might not exist in a few years because they are not very cost competitive, he added. A miracle also could well occur in which elected officials decide they actually want a space program that accomplishes things instead of one focused on maintaining the industrial base.
There is a serious debate over how many competitors NASA should support as part of the commercial crew effort. The space agency is currently funding four competitors, and it may eliminate one or two when it awards the next phase of the program this summer.
Some in Congress want a single industrial team to develop a commercial crew vehicle. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison has been urging NASA to downselect to two providers. Their concerns include the cost of the program and whether a market exists for more than one system.
Muncy said that inconsistent messaging from top NASA officials has caused concern in Congress. At times, they have talked about having two systems, at other times four or five.
He said that if NASA wants a safe, innovative crew system at a lower cost, it needs to have at least two systems flight tested. If the space agency feels that one of the systems is not ready, NASA could have it deliver cargo until there are enough successful flights to be confident of putting a crew on board.
A robust launch capability would allow the United States to get much more return from its substantial investment in the International Space Station, he added. The U.S. would be able to fly more astronauts and to do so more often. The orbiting facility can support crews of seven instead of the six astronauts aboard it now. The lower number is a result of having to rely upon two Russian Soyuz spacecraft, which have three seats apiece.
On a related issue, Muncy said that Sen. Jay Rockefeller, chairman of the Committee on Science, Commerce and Transportation, is concerned about the extension of third party indemnification relating to launch accidents that cause injuries or damage to third parties. Under the system, some of the damage is covered by insurance taken out by launch providers while the government is on the hook for a certain amount.
Muncy predicted that this issue would get worked out. He added that there might be a new commercial space bill introduced in Congress this year or next year.