Bolden calls for support of Commercial Crew in letter to Congress
NASA Administrator sent a letter to the United States Congress where he let the political body know that he had been forced to extend the agreement for crew transportation services to the International Space Station. He used the letter to ask that President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2016 Budget Proposal for the space agency’s Commercial Crew Program be approved.
The letter is more reserved than when the four-time space shuttle veteran communicated with Congress this past June. In this recent letter, Bolden works to convince Congress to invest in U.S. aerospace firms as opposed to paying Russia for seats on Soyuz spacecraft.
According to a report appearing on SpaceFlight Now, the Obama Administration requested $1.244 billion for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program – which was an increase of some $433 million over this year’s (2015) budget request for the program.
This letter represents the latest round in a back-and-forth struggle that has gone on between Congress and the President since Obama’s 2010 cancellation of the Constellation Program. The following year, Congress pushed back seeking to maintain the progress NASA had made to develop a super heavy-lift booster (the Space Launch System or SLS) capable of sending astronauts to destinations in deep space.
With these two different programs in place, NASA developed a two-pronged strategy in terms of its human space exploration efforts. For crews being sent to low-Earth orbit (LEO), NASA would rely on Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. It was announced in September of 2014 that the two firms had been selected to proceed to the Commercial Crew transportation Capability phase of the program.
The only destination in LEO at present is the International Space Station. A project comprising some 16 different nations, the ISS is currently slated to remain on orbit until at least 2024. NASA is hoping to cede responsibility of sending crews to the space station to private firms as it focuses on something it has not done in more than four decades – sending astronauts into deep space.
Since the close of the Apollo 17 mission to the Moon in 1972, NASA has only been able to send crews to LEO. With the announcement that the Shuttle Program would come to a close (it ended in 2011 with the final flight of Atlantis on mission STS-135), NASA has been working to regain this capability.
Bolden’s full letter is as follows:
Since the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2004, NASA has been committed to developing a follow-on, low-Earth orbit transportation system and limiting our reliance on others to transport U.S. crew to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2010, I presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015 if provided the requested level of funding. Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned. This has resulted in continued sole reliance on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft as our crew transport vehicle for American and international partner crews to the ISS.
I am writing to inform you that NASA, once again, has modified its current contract with the Russian government to meet America’s requirements for crew transportation services. Under this contract modification, the cost of these services to the U.S. taxpayers will be approximately $490 million. I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry – the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX – to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.
Across the United States, aerospace engineers are building a new generation of spacecraft and rockets that will define modern American spaceflight. The safe, reliable, and cost-effective solutions being developed here at home will allow for more astronauts to conduct research aboard the space station, enable new jobs, and ensure U.S. leadership in spaceflight this century. The fastest path to bringing these new systems online, launching from America, and ending our sole reliance on Russia is fully funding NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in FY 2016. Our Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contractors are on track today to provide certified crew transportation systems in 2017. Reductions from the FY 2016 request for Commercial Crew proposed in the House and Senate FY 2016 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies appropriations bills would result in NASA’s inability to fund several planned CCtCap milestones in FY 2016 and would likely result in funds running out for both contractors during the spring/summer of FY 2016. If this occurs, the existing fixed-price CCtCap contracts may need to be renegotiated, likely resulting in further schedule slippage and increased cost.
Human spaceflight and exploration are important activities for this Nation. The broad scope and bold goals of our human spaceflight program set our Nation apart from all others. Human spaceflight is both an exploration program beyond low-Earth orbit comprised of the Space Launch System and the Orion crew vehicle as well as the ISS and the private sector crew transportation systems necessary to support our research and technology development on the ISS – research and development that is critical to the success of the exploration program. While I understand that funding is extremely limited, it is critical that all of NASA’s human spaceflight efforts be supported.
It is my sincere hope that we all agree that the greatest nation on Earth should not be dependent on others to launch humans into space. I urge Congress to provide the funds requested for our Commercial Crew Program this year, so we can prevent this situation in the future.
If everything goes according to plan, Boeing and SpaceX plan to carry out two test flights within the 2016-2017 timeframe. One of these will be without a crew, the other with a crew. SpaceX has already stated that it has opted to conduct its crewed test flight using only NASA astronauts (as opposed to having one of the company’s own astronauts be a part of the mission). It is likely that without the approval of the budget request that these test flights could slip to 2018 or possibly later.
Jason Rhian spent several years honing his skills with internships at NASA, the National Space Society and other organizations. He has provided content for outlets such as: Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space.com, The Mars Society and Universe Today.