Senator Weighs Alternative Use for NASA's Commercial Spaceship Funds

Ares V rocket
This artist's concept shows the Ares V cargo launch vehicle, a rocket that may be similar to NASA's Space Launch System (SLS) in many ways. (Image credit: NASA/MSFC)

WASHINGTON — As the Senate CommerceCommittee begins work on a 2010 NASA authorization bill, science and spacesubcommittee chairman Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) is questioning whether $6billion the U.S. space agency is seeking for developing commercial crew taxismight be better spent on a heavy-lift rocket that could take humans beyond lowEarth orbit.

Nelson told a NASA Kennedy Space Center-area audience March19 that he expects U.S. President Barack Obama to "revamphis budget" and set specificgoals for the nation's human spaceflight program when he visits FloridaApril 15 to talk space.

"Now, if he doesn't do that, it makes our job a littlerougher," said Nelson, speaking to a forum at Brevard Community College inCocoa Beach, Fla. "But I can tell you that we have a consensus that what wewill do in the Senate at least is put money into aggressive [research anddevelopment] of a heavy lift [rocket]," Nelson said. "And to try to take partsthat we already have ? and obviously what we already have are parts of the Aresrocket ? and utilize that as we start to develop this heavy lift capability."

Nelson also said he hopes Congress will fund continued developmentof the OrionCrew Exploration Vehicle, or something like it. The Obama administrationhas marked Orion and its Ares 1 launcher for cancellation along with the restof NASA's Constellation program.

"It's also my hope that we would get the funding in thebudget that would continue the development of a spacecraft, call it Orion orOrion light or something completely different, but we're going to do that,"Nelson said.

During a March 18 subcommittee hearing on U.S. commercialspace capabilities, Nelson asked repeatedly about the $6 billion intended tofund commercial crew taxis proposed in Obama's 2011 budget request for NASA.

"What would happen if Congress decided ? since the Congresscontrols the purse strings ? that we wanted to take the $6 billion projected bythe president over the next five years and use that not for human certificationof the commercial vehicles but instead to accelerate the [research and development]for a heavy-lift vehicle for the Mars program?" Nelson asked United LaunchAlliance President and Chief Executive Officer Michael Gass, one of sevenwitnesses Nelson quizzed about NASA's plan to outsource astronauttransportation to the private sector.

NASA's 2011 budget request includes about a $500 milliondown payment on a five-year, $6 billion initiative to foster development ofcommercial crewed vehicles for the international space station. NASA alsoproposes to spend $3.1 billion through 2015 on a heavy-lift and propulsionresearch and development program. The White House has proposed paying for theseand other initiatives by scrapping plans to go to the Moon and increasingNASA's budget by $6 billion over the president's previous five-year plan. ?

Earlier in the week NASA Administrator Charles Bolden saidthe agency's 2011 budget plan balances a number of prioritiesneglected under previous administrations, including new heavy-lift propulsionresearch and development, commercial crew initiatives, technologydemonstrations, Earth science missions and modernization of the nation's airtraffic control system.

"We should make no mistake that these are the drivers forNASA's budget increase of $6 billion over the next five years," Bolden saidduring a March 16 Washington Space Business Roundtable lunch in Oxon Hill, Md.

Nelson asked former NASA comptroller Malcolm Peterson howCongress can verify whether NASA needs the entire proposed $6 billion to fostera commercial crew transportation system over the next five years.

"I don't think you can do so at this stage," he said. "Ourhistory is not exactly one of unparalleled excellence in cost estimating ? wemanage to miss it usually by an order of magnitude or so."

Nelson later asked Gwynne Shotwell, president of ?SpaceExploration Technologies (SpaceX), whether fielding a crewed version of theFalcon 9-launched Dragon capsule the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company is gettingready to test for space station-bound cargo runs would require the entire $6billion NASA is seeking for the commercial crew initiative.

Shotwell said $6 billion would be enough for NASA to fundbetween five and 10 efforts of the magnitude SpaceX intends to propose.

Frank Culbertson, a former astronaut who is now a seniorvice president at Orbital Sciences Corp., said his Dulles, Va.-based employeris less optimistic than SpaceX about the number of crewed systems NASA couldfoster for $6 billion.

"We've looked at the previous systems that have been flownand we looked at how we develop spacecraft and what it takes to ensure theyaccomplish missions and to be safe and reliable," said Culbertson, whosecompany stands to receive $1.9 billion from NASA to make eight cargo runs tothe space station using the Taurus 2 rocket and Cygnus spacecraft now indevelopment. SpaceX has promised NASA 12 cargo flights for $1.6 billion.

Culbertson said Orbital used cost models based in part onthe space shuttle's development to come up with a roughly $3 billion estimatefor developing a 9,000-kilogram spacecraft capable of delivering three or fourpeople to low Earth orbit. "Given today's productivity and efficiencies that wehave, we think the number could be significantly less than that, but at leastthat gives you an upper-bound on a conservative approach of what one companymight need to do that level of development," he said.

During the hearing, Nelson urged Obama to consider adding afifth shuttle flight to the orbiters' current manifest, comprised of fourremaining logistics missions to the station by September this year.

"I would argue to the president to have a fifth shuttleflight," he said.

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SpaceNews Staff Writer

Amy Klamper is a space reporter and former staff writer for the space industry news publication SpaceNews. From 2004 to 2010, Amy covered U.S. space policy, NASA and space industry professionals for SpaceNews. Her stories included profiles on major players in the space industry, space policy work in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as national policy set by the White House.