Congress…You’re Fired! (Maybe)
Finally the announcement has been made. Earlier this week NASA selected SpaceX and Boeing for funded contracts to human rate their launchers and orbiters to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station. The United States Congress wanted to limit this next phase of the Commercial Crew Development program (called CCtCAP) to only one provider, but NASA thumbed its nose at Congress and selected two anyway. We’ll see what happens next. The goal is 2017. I’d like to see it sooner. The total combined amount is $6.8 billion. This year’s approved budget for it is $696 million. The providers will be paid the money as they meet each item in the progressive list of objectives and then perform between 2 and 6 crewed launches.
Sierra Nevada and their space plane received no funding, but I think I heard somewhere that they will continue as an unfunded Space Act Agreement project and thus will still have access to NASA and their knowledge base. A slower process for them, sadly, but there had to be at least one partner relegated to this status. It’s not a big surprise really since Space planes are hard to develop and we are in a hurry. Space plane building will continue on multiple fronts and will bear fruit someday.
SpaceX has the momentum, the compelling price-point, and the higher vision of Mars as their goal. Boeing has deep experience and connections within Congress. The SpaceX Falcon 9 means that we won’t have to rely completely on Russia’s RD-180 engine that is used on the Atlas V launcher that will carry the Boeing orbiter. Our dependence on business with Russia for space launches has become…inconvenient. However, the launch history of ULA and the experience of both them and Boeing may be critical to the stability of the upcoming space product and service industry in the long-haul.
If NASA wants to squeeze enough funding out of Congress for two competitors, one of the contractors had to be Boeing. If NASA wants to maintain the initiative away from traditional contracting for launchers and spacecraft, then the other choice had to be SpaceX, who is aggressive enough to elbow tradition and the good-ol’-boy network aside…with brute marketing force if necessary.
However, NASA doesn’t hold the actual purse strings, and the money fight continues. While SpaceX markets to space advocates, Boeing markets to Congress. Congress will not fork over $6.8 billion easily. Congress does not like Commercial Crew Development (CCDev). Congress likes the pork of a single provider working under traditional contracts where NASA (and thus Government) owns every major project that flies in space, so Congress has been trying to funnel this effort down to one provider by cutting its funding because they think that can eventually go back to business as usual. With traditional contracting Congresspersons get pats on the back for spending gazillions of dollars on a small network of huge employers in specific voting districts. Access to space has been subject to political whim and unnecessarily high cost for far too long, but Congress wants to continue doing things that way and rebuild a monopoly in manned spaceflight, so they will continue their efforts to try to starve out this project. NASA knows this and it also knows that space projects involve long-term commitment that the divisiveness and shifting winds of our political process are incapable of sustaining. Commercial enterprises have taken over communications satellite launches with great success. That industry now generates enough money to more than sustain itself and elected officials have no say in its direction, rate of growth, or funding levels. It is a world-wide industry that governs itself based on innovation and consumer demand.
I don’t think that Congress has entirely given up its pipe-dream of some form of the upcoming Space Launch System (SLS)…or at least Orion (the new deep-space capsule that NASA is building through traditional contracting)…being part of transportation and resupply for the ISS either, especially since planners are having trouble finding support for enough deep-space missions to maintain a stable launch frequency for those systems. That’s right, Congress wants NASA to spend $18 billion through 2017 to build SLS and Orion, but there are not enough places for it to go to maintain the massive industrial infrastructure used to build and fly it. Congress doesn’t seem to care that at $500 million per launch the purpose for which it was designed…crewed deep space exploration…is the only thing its good for. That means that Congress has their own dog in the fight for a manned Low-Earth orbiter and that New Space (and with it CCDev) are competing directly with Congressional priorities in an orbit where expensive NASA-owned launchers and space capsules no longer make any sense at all.
Congress is in a bit of a pickle. They can’t really cut into these new CCtCAP contracts without delaying the end of our reliance on Russia to shuttle U.S., Japanese, and Canadian astronauts to the International Space Station. Recent events in Ukraine are pressuring our government and the Russian government to put some space between us. Also, I think that if Congress cuts CCtCAP funding it would likely hurt their buddy Boeing more than it would SpaceX, since Boeing’s CCDev orbiter is an end unto itself, while SpaceX has a larger plan. For SpaceX founder, Elon Musk, this is all just a necessary stepping stone to a higher goal that for him will not be denied.
However, Congress must cut CCDev deep enough to slow it down and let Orion and SLS keep-up with SpaceX if they want to ever see SLS fly. SpaceX has deep-space eggs of its own on the fire which compete directly with SLS and threaten to marginalize it even before its first launch. Falcon Heavy will test fly early next year and will cost $85 million per flight.
I stand by what I’ve said before…there are few Space advocates or opponents in the U.S. Congress…there are mostly just space FUNDING advocates or opponents. For you and I, space is a destination for spacecraft. For Congress, reelection is a destination for spacecraft spending. Orion is a great orbiter, I’ve always liked it and look forward to its first space flight test late this year, but it is owned by NASA and totally dependent on Congress for its funding. It is also way more expensive than it has to be and way too expensive to launch astronauts to the ISS. More importantly, it is way, way too expensive to use for commercial interests like commercial space stations, space tourism, resource mining and a bunch of other things that are waiting for human-rated spacecraft at down-to-Earth prices.
Speaking of expense, SpaceX fans have criticized the fact that Boeing received more money than SpaceX in these contracts. NASA awarded each of them the amount of money that they bid for the list of objectives that NASA expects them to achieve. Boeing is a much larger company than SpaceX and is addicted to the seemingly endless supply of Government money that comes with traditional contracting. This stage of CCDev is where NASA purchases the launches and other activities that SpaceX and Boeing need to perform in order to certify. Boeing’s CST-100 orbiter and the United Launch Alliance Atlas V 402 rocket are more expensive than the SpaceX’s Dragon V2 orbiter and their Falcon 9 rocket. Some Boeing fans claim that SpaceX has to cut corners in order to do the same job for $1.6 billion less, but NASA will absolutely not them do that. Their safety requirements will be just as stiff as Boeing’s. Many of you out there reading this can probably beat me across the finish line at a marathon, but it wouldn’t be because you cut corners, it would be because I’m old and fat. Competition will force all players in a properly competitive human space-flight industry to trim the fat out of their business models and bring their prices down. That will open the door to a host of new commercial endeavors in space that would not be profitable otherwise.
That is why we space advocates in the U.S. must push our respective legislators for full funding of these new CCtCAP contracts. Whatever our respective political preferences in other things, we must join forces and keep up the pressure on our elected officials from now until these certifications are BOTH complete and these spacecraft are BOTH fully tested and flying. We must make it clear that we will tolerate no sacrifices either to the timeline or to the priorities necessary for building a self-sustaining, commercial human spaceflight industry in low Earth orbit and beyond. We need NASA to succeed in their goal to enable multiple providers to begin gaining a launch history of human spaceflight in low-Earth orbit, and with it the notoriety and experience to attract commercial customers. We want something which will grow big and lucrative and drive up innovation and launch frequency, drive down prices, and make space commonplace for each and every one of us. We owe our children and grandchildren a fast-growing new industry to work in like the one we had with the computer tech boom in the 80s and 90s.