Administration Opposes Senate Provisions on Commercial Crew, Europa Mission

Credit: Matt Wade
Credit: Matt Wade

In a policy statement issued today, the White House took issue with two objectives near and dear to Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL): crippling NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and boosting its Space Launch System (SLS).

“The Administration appreciates the Committee’s support for the Commercial Crew program, but has concerns about language that would seek to apply accounting requirements unsuitable for a firm, fixed-price acquisition, likely increasing the program’s cost and potentially delaying its schedule,” the Administration said in the statement, which covers the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2015.

Shelby is the main driver behind a provision in the spending bill that would require contractors to provide certified cost and pricing data for the program. He says it is a matter of accountability and transparency.

Commercial space advocates — including the Space Access Society and Space Frontier Foundation — oppose the provision, saying it would drive up costs significantly. The Space Access Society sees the move as a way of bringing the program back under the control of NASA bureaucrats.

The White House also opposes another provision in the spending bill that would direct NASA to use the heavy-lift SLS as the baseline rocket for a future robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The giant rocket is being developed by the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, which is in Shelby’s home state of Alabama.

“The Administration appreciates the Committee’s support for science missions, but is concerned about prematurely specifying elements of future missions while the missions are in a very early state of development,” the policy statement reads. “In particular, the Administration believes…that it is premature to designate the Space Launch System as the launch vehicle for a Europa mission before the costs and benefits of such a choice are understood.”

The Senate provides no specific FY 2015 funding for a mission to Europe, which is believed to have a substantial ocean beneath its frozen surface. The House spending measure includes $100 million to support work on the program.

In a similar vein, the Administration says it is concerned “the Committee’s proposed approach to a follow-on Landsat mission is not feasible within the bill’s proposed cost cap of $650 million.”

The Obama Administration also is concerned about funding for the Space Technology program. The Administration requested $705.5 million, while the Senate measure would fund the program at $580.2 million. The House measure would provide $620 million.

“The Administration is concerned that the bill does not provide the FY 2015 Budget request for the Space Technology program,” the statement reads. “Space Technology is needed to reduce the cost and increase the long-term capability of NASA, other Government, and commercial space activities.”

The policy statement doesn’t provide any guidance on what the White House would consider an acceptable level of funding for the program below the amount that was requested.

  • larryj8

    I could count the number of times I’ve agreed with Obama using one hand and have fingers left over. This is one of those times.

  • savuporo

    Its good to see that some of the activism was heard and noticed.

  • windbourne

    And there, we go. O is standing up to the GOP again, who are working hard to destroy private space (or simply hand it all over to Boeing/L-Mart).

    Way to go.

  • Hoplon

    Ditto đŸ™‚

  • windbourne

    Totally understand.

  • therealdmt

    Good job by the Administration – at least they’re paying attention. But will Obama expend any political capital to effect a change to this FARs nonsense?

    One would think this qualifies somewhat as a national priority (what with Russia threatening to pull out of the ISS and invading European countries and whatnot), given the investment the US has made over the decades in manned spaceflight. Still, Congress, which again underfunded the program and is even actively throwing up roadblocks, obviously doesn’t see regaining a real US manned spaceflight capability as a priority.

    Using the SLS for an underfunded Europa mission (there’s not enough money for a Europa orbiter, which is what is really desired ([et alone a lander]) is just a wasteful joke and should also be corrected, of course. If they’ve got that much money to spend, give us an orbiter and maybe even a surface lander. Or do a sample return from a fly-through of an ice plume.

  • Kapitalist

    I wonder if a Europa sample return mission could be done very cheap. Just sending the aerogel on a precise trajectory to (hopefully) pass through an active plume and swing around Jupiter to return to Earth. It would need no communication system because it returns physically. No propulsion, no electronics, no energy source, no heating. Just a piece of low weight aerogel which we capture as it returns. Maybe a whole bunch of them could be sent to increase the chances of hitting a plume.

  • Robert Gishubl

    Unfortunately way too many variables with gravity and sunlight thrust etc to get an accurate insertion profile without the ability for minor corrections on the way. There is probably some scope to make it cheaper but when launch costs are 100-200 million for EELV class you do need to get a decent amount of science back to justify the expense which means a decent probe with multiple instruments with support staff on earth which drives up the cost.
    The best way to improve that is to lower the cost of launch so you can do simple missions with cheaper probes which get you less science return but the cost is lots lower so it is still reasonable.

  • Arnie T

    windbourne: Agree with your support for larryj8’s statement.
    However, politically speaking, the Dems control the Senate.
    They could have stopped SenShelby *anytime*!

    BTW I’m currently registered as a Rep (for how long as anything I don’t know). And, I would love to see SenShelby “retired”, minus the retirement money he will take out of taxpayers pockets for as long as his fully paid for (again by us), and Top Notch Healthcare plan can keep him breathing!

    These retirement plans should be abolished for ALL elected officials! It’s been a very long time since the policy was established in “our” embarrassment about former President Ulysses S. Grant dying in poverty.

    therealdmt:”But will Obama expend any political capital to effect a change in this FARs nonsense?”
    THAT is a Very good point. He’s an expert at talking-the-talk, and the media usually gives him a pass when it’s time to walk-the-walk.

  • Arnie T

    Thank you Kapitalist and Robert Gishubl for making a hard swerve towards the technical side of space exploration. Would that we could have a space program focused on getting the job done without constant political micro-management. . . . So, I’m a dreamer . . . . so, shoot me already. đŸ™‚

  • windbourne

    Oh, I am NOT a dem. Nor am I a supporter of theirs. I consider them inept. However, I go after the 2 sub-groups of the GOP since I consider them highly corrupted. I am a registered Libertarian, but since 2007, and my watching what happened, I am probably moving towards the old style GOP, which sadly, keeps being ran out of the party. đŸ™‚

    I have to say that I have wondered long and hard about why the dems would allow such a worthless amendment in this. The only thing that I can come up with is that the Senate operates closer to what it should, which is via compromises.
    The other possibility, is they are allowing a trap in which O is the hunter.

    It will be interesting to see what happens over the next 2 months.

  • Kapitalist

    Sample return is totally different from all other kinds of science missions. It requires a completely different trajectory and the “data” are returned physically. Sample return cannot be combined with any other science on a mission. It would be very impracticle to “return Cassini”.

    Aerogel has no mass and needs no kind of maintenance. It just needs a trajectory and a way to be collected in space when it returns somewhere near Earth. Precision is not important, the target clouds to be sampled are huge. Sample return from plumes, atmospheres, rings, comet tails is the cheapest imaginable kind of space mission. Just launch gel! Payload mass to be launched would be less than one kilogram, less than a cubesat.

  • therealdmt

    I like your idea. Enceladus might be a better target for that kind of mission though as the plumes are so frequent. It looks like the plumes on Europa are very infrequent and as yet poorly understood. Maybe an orbiter (to make sure it’s eventually in the right place at the right time) with an aerogel capture component that could be sent slowly back to earth with ion or similar propulsion…