The National Space Society (NSS) strongly opposes the Senate Appropriations Committee’s $344 million (27%) cut of the 2015 Commercial Crew budget requested by the Administration. The Senate cuts were $100 million more than those recently passed by the House.
NSS stands with NASA administrator Charles Bolden when he said “By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts into space – and to continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy rather than our own.” The two winners of the Commercial Crew competition, Boeing and SpaceX, have been making excellent progress, exemplified by the May 6th successful pad abort test of the SpaceX Dragon 2 crew escape system. Both are on track to fly astronauts in 2017 assuming funding is provided.
Until Commercial Crew vehicles are flying, the only way for anyone to get to the ISS is the Russian Soyuz. Unfortunately, the Russian space program has recently displayed a worrisome lack of reliability. On May 16th the failure of the third stage of the Russian Proton resulted in the loss of the MexSat-1 communications satellite. During April, a Russian Progress M-27M carrying cargo to the ISS went out of control and was lost with all its contents. More recently, the unexpected firing of the engine of a Soyuz spacecraft attached to the ISS shifted its orbital position. Congress, which has underfunded and thus delayed Commercial Crew consistently, will bear a significant share of the responsibility if the next Russian accident results in injuries to astronauts or the abandonment of the ISS.
Some have advocated reducing the Commercial Crew program to a single vehicle, reducing current costs and eliminating competition. NSS has long supported competition in the Commercial Crew program (see the 2014 NSS position paper on the NASA Commercial Crew Program). The failure of the Orbital ATK Antares cargo rocket during a launch attempt to the ISS last year demonstrated the value of redundant systems, underscoring the vital importance of having multiple Commercial Crew providers.
It is imperative that Congress provide full funding to Commercial Crew so that both Boeing and SpaceX reach operational status. The Commercial Crew program has been one of NASA’s biggest success stories, generating large amounts of real product innovation while reducing costs to the government. Any expansive future in space, such as that envisioned in the NSS Roadmap to Space Settlement (www.nss.org/settlement/roadmap) requires lower cost specialized systems such as those being created by Commercial Crew and Commercial Resupply Services (CRS).
“NSS urges the Senate to pass a clean amendment restoring full funding of $1.244 billion to Commercial Crew when this Bill comes to the Senate floor for final passage,” said NSS Executive VP Dale Skran. “We are extremely concerned with the increasing difficulties in the Russian space program and suggest NASA immediately develop a contingency plan for Russian withdrawal other than evacuating the ISS.”