US Congress in surprise move wants legally coerced space monopoly–, would raise costs, slow down development, attack free rights of users…
http://news.discovery.com/space/might-nasa-kill-the-commercial-space-race-120515.html see also http://www.floridatoday.com/article/20120511/NEWS01/305110026/House-NASA-must-make-immediate-choice-commercial-crew-program?nclick_check=1
“…The spending measure, which still needs Senate review and approval, was authored by Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA’s budget. It also covers other federal agencies..Rep. Sandy Adams, R-Orlando, also voted for the bill despite sharing …”
Might NASA Kill the Commercial Space Race?
It looks like the commercial space race might be over before it’s even really begun.
Last week, Congress approved a spending bill that demands NASA immediately choose one company for the commercial crew program, and this week they will be voting on it. Killing the private competition is meant to save money and speed up development, but more likely it will be devastating to NASA’s already stretched budget.
Currently, NASA is providing subsidies to companies vying to develop a viable manned launch system. There are a lot of interesting and promising commercial programs under development right now. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin project is working on a launch vehicle, Sierra Nevada is working on the Dream Chaser orbital vehicle, ATK just announced its intention to add a spacecraft to its Liberty rocket, SpaceX has its Falcon 9 and Dragon, and Orbital Sciences has its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are the front runners, both planning flights to the ISS this year to demonstrate their capabilities. SpaceX is scheduled to launch this coming Saturday. But these missions are unmanned cargo flights; manned mission aren’t expected until 2017. So why stop the competition before NASA has a viable commercial crew system?
The short answer is money.
Commercial crew projects fall under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program that was started in 2006 with the goal of easing the transition out of the shuttle era by having private companies take over the low Earth orbital launches allowing NASA to focus on its loftier goals of deep space manned missions on Saturn V-type powerful rockets. There’s no money for the COTS program in NASA’s 2013 budget. The bill will remove continued COTS costs and streamline the commercial launch effort by giving one company more money to develop its system faster.
The problem with the short answer is that it’s short sighted. The layered approach with multiple companies vying for the contract to build a new space transportation system is exactly what NASA needs right now. The competition has yielded creativity and innovation. The rockets and spacecraft these companies have come up with has cost NASA millions instead of billions since the agency isn’t alone in footing the bill, and there are clearly viable systems on the horizon.
If the competition goes away, the need to come up with the most reliable, cost-effective, and flexible system will go with it. “It is unfortunate that Congress would direct an agency to pick a company before the magic of the marketplace had a chance to work,” said Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute at the University of Central Florida. Without the need to outdo a competitor the drive for innovation can disappear, leading to cost overruns and slipping schedules.
We’ve seen this before. In the early days of the shuttle program, NASA was directed to pick the contractor that promised the lowest overall cost without seeing a demonstration of abilities first.
During the Space Race NASA chose contractors based on designs and previous experience rather than demonstration. In both cases the program costs were huge and staying on schedule was an ongoing battle. The only difference with Apollo-era programs was that money was no object.
“Ending competition by down-selecting to a sole commercial space company could double the cost of developing a privately built human spaceflight system and it will leave us in the same position we find ourselves today — having only one option for getting our astronauts to the space station,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden told an FAA commercial space advisory committee last week.
Picking one company now also means that the individuals aren’t carrying the risk in developing their systems. With full NASA funding, the taxpayers are the stakeholders, and its easier to spend money when it’s not yours. But it could turn out differently. It could be that the individuals behind these commercial ventures have the tenacity and moral fiber to stick with the goals of on schedule low cost launch systems that don’t compromise safety even when they aren’t financially responsible.
If the bill is passed, it’s likely SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon spacecraft will be the commercial system of choice, selected before the demonstration flight this month. It’s really putting the cart before the horse. It’s possible that SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk’s enthusiasm and goals of contributing to humanity’s future in space — he’s tweeted that “Making large scale rocket propulsion landing work well is a critical step towards a fully reusable Mars transport system… which is the critical breakthrough needed for life to become multiplanetary” — will break the cycle of a single contractor leading budget overruns and slipping schedules.
We should know this week what changes we’ll see in the commercial space venture.
Image: The SpaceX Falcon 9 launches — a thing of the past? Credit: SpaceX