The space media is in an uproar over the funding levels for NASA’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. Congress has appropriated less money than the administration requested for the last five years. Has legislative parsimony held us back in our inexorable march to the stars? To read some of the press coverage, one might think so. But to gain some perspective, we should consider the origins and purpose of this program and what it has promised for what is being spent.
NASA programs to develop an independent, commercial capability to deliver both cargo and people to low Earth orbit have their origins in the strategic planning for the International Space Station (ISS) “assembly complete” era, and in the Vision for Space Exploration. One recommendation of the 2004 Aldridge Commission was for NASA to solicit cargo delivery to orbit from the commercial sector instead of launching it on government-built and -operated vehicles. The reasoning behind this recommendation was that as travel to and from LEO had become “routine,” and as NASA was supposed to be a cutting edge entity, it was time to contract for these services, so that the agency could focus its efforts on blazing new trails and technology paths. This recommendation (one of the few actually implemented from that report) became NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) Program. The purpose of COTS was to invest seed money in the commercial development of this capability, after which delivery services for cargo to the ISS (the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) program) would be purchased.
The COTS effort began in 2006 and resulted in the development of two different American cargo delivery services, one by Orbital (Antares) and the other from SpaceX (Dragon); both are operational (although both are currently grounded by launch vehicle failures). On the basis of this apparent success, the current administration expanded the COTS concept into the realm of human spaceflight, called the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The ostensible purpose of this effort was to provide access to and from the ISS for American crew members by funding commercial companies to develop a new human spacecraft for LEO transportation. With the cancellation of Project Constellation, the need for crew transport to and from space was indeed pressing, especially as no attempt was made to delay the scheduled retirement of the Shuttle – it went forward unabated. Thus, our working orbiters were removed from service and put on display in museums around the country. We’ve been purchasing rides to ISS from Russia since 2011.
New Space adherents, believing that their ship had finally and truly come in, hailed the new emphasis on commercial spaceflight. In their formulation, “government programs” to develop new NASA spacecraft are ponderous, bureaucratic, slow and expensive, while the “private sector” of New Space would be nimble, responsive, fast and cheap. Much of the private sector’s incentive to be nimble and cheap flows from the reality that the expenditure of private capital impacts its shareholders, yet CCDev has the federal government paying development costs, a funding line that has been in NASA’s budget continuously since the program’s inception in 2010.
But when less money was allocated to CCDev than the administration’s yearly requests, its supporters grew incensed, intensifying the friction within an already divided space community. Much of their indignation stems from the concurrent full funding of the agency’s “program of record,” the new Orion spacecraft and its launch vehicle, the Space Launch System (SLS). In other words, because Congress chooses to expend more of the human spaceflight budget funding an established, federal human spaceflight program rather than transferring dollars to the new “private” commercial effort, they call Congress’ budgetary decisions corrupt and “pork.”
NASA claims that the selected CCDev proposals for spacecraft development are meeting their targeted incremental milestones. They further claim (through comments and letters to relevant Congressional authorities by the Administrator) that the “inadequate funding” of the program by Congress is responsible for the delays in system development and for extending the need for Americans to ride to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz. Is any of this true?
The Gemini program (1962-1966) created America’s first multi-person crew vehicle to orbit. The sum total of money spent on Gemini was about $1.3 billion (around $8.5 billion in FY2015 dollars) of which $800 million ($5.2 billion FY2015) went into the development and building of 12 flight spacecraft, and about 15 training vehicles, with the first manned launch occurring about 3 years after program initiation. The Gemini spacecraft carried two crewmen (although a later study considered development of a version that could carry up to 9 people). The spacecraft could maneuver to change its orbit and then rendezvous and dock with a target vehicle. Crew EVA was also supported and conducted on 5 of the 10 flown missions.
For the CCDev program (started in 2010), spacecraft designs were selected from three proposers for further development. Currently down-selected to two companies (Boeing and SpaceX), those contracts have met four development milestones in the past five years, but neither has produced a working spacecraft. To date, about $1.5 billion has been spent, with the two major contractors Boeing and SpaceX, getting $1.1 billion between them. Assuming that all certifications are met, manifests show the first unmanned demo missions of SpaceX’s Dragon is scheduled to launch in late 2016, and Boeing’s CST-100 in spring of 2017. The first crew delivery to ISS would be in 2017.
New Spacers claim this slow pace is the result of the Congressional under-funding, but offer no evidence that more money would significantly accelerate the schedule. Should we just marvel that the planners and builders in the 1960s got Gemini up and running in 3 years (at a point in which we had no experience whatsoever in space rendezvous and docking) and give this generation a pass? The “abundance” of money available to Gemini did not buy any schedule acceleration, although it did allow for the purchase of abundant surplus hardware. Like any spacecraft development, Gemini suffered several technical setbacks during its operational phase, including a wildly unreliable Agena target docking vehicle, early problems with fuel cell technology, and EVA difficulties that were not solved until the very last flight.
But a more pertinent issue is the whole concept behind CCDev. Allegedly, there is an enormous pent-up market demand for human transport to LEO and external “investment” or incentives are needed to kick-start, what will undoubtedly turn out to be, an economically self-sustaining industry. Yet several other attempts to do exactly this have failed to yield any positive results. Space entrepreneur Bob Bigelow set-up a prize in 2004 of $50 million for any entity that could demonstrate a capability for commercial human flight to LEO and return – that prize expired in 2010 without a single attempt to claim it. Why should the federal government pay commercial firms to build a vehicle that is desperately needed for private spaceflight? We’re told that NASA needs it for transport to the ISS. But we had working space vehicles – the Shuttle orbiters, whose retirement to museums was not halted after Constellation was arbitrarily cancelled.
The New Space paradigm isn’t faster and cheaper – although there might be some marginal differences, it’s just as slow and costly as any other approach to space. Spaceflight is hard (as the cliché goes) and attempting to accomplish feats on the very edge of technical possibility will always be difficult and costly. The “cuts” in CCDev imposed by the Congress are cuts only in the Washington sense – the actual amount of money appropriated for the program has increased each year. But there is no evidence that these “cuts” are responsible for the slow progress of the program. Commercial vendors of human spaceflight have only one customer at the moment (NASA), and as they are content to let the feds pay for their development, they are content with the current rate of progress. A test of the sincerity of their belief in the future commercial possibilities of human to LEO transport might be reflected in their willingness to back development efforts with their own money, rather than ours.