Senator Bill Nelson (D, Florida) introduced the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 to the Senate commerce committee last week, and it is slated for a committee vote and discussion on July 15th. If enacted, the bill would add one or more space shuttle flights, cut $2.1 billion in funding for commercial crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS) and speed development of a super-heavy lift rocket, likely derived from existing work on the troubled Constellation program.
Over the past several years I have performed exhaustive research on the state of the commercial spaceflight industry in support of a book that I’m in the process of writing. This research has led me to believe that the president’s FY 2011 NASA budget request, which is quite different from Senator Nelson’s NASA Authorization Act, is a brilliant move to revitalize NASA and take advantage of America’s rapidly growing commercial spaceflight sector. Over the long-term, it’s likely to be the first step towards a vibrant new sector of our economy, one in which American companies are at the forefront, led by NASA’s guidance and explorations. Success is likely because of its emphasis on sustainable exploration that provides a market to American spaceflight enterprises. NASA can both encourage the growth of this market, and reap the benefits in the form of reduced costs, potentially increased safety, and faster progress towards exploration.
However, this bold new vision is unpopular with members of congress from states heavily invested in the current plan of record (“Constellation”, which consists of the Ares 1, Ares 5 and Orion programs). As such, Senator Nelson is attempting to derail the president’s FY 2011 NASA budget with the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. The act undercuts the path to sustainable exploration on two fronts. First, it dramatically reduces funding for commercial crew transportation to the International Space Station (ISS). This would reduce the attractiveness of crew transportation contracts, and also increase “the gap” between the retirement of the Space Shuttle and the fielding of a new American crew transport vehicle (requiring expensive flights on the Russian Soyuz in the interim). Second, it calls for the immediate start of an expensive and unnecessary heavy lift booster program. This would likely hurt our long-term exploration prospects by costing too much to develop and operate, and by eliminating the benefits our commercial launch providers would gain if we crafted an exploration architecture that uses existing boosters at a higher flight rate (lowering costs through increased production volume).
I strongly encourage our senators (I called mine today) on the commerce committee (references below) to either vote for Senator Warner’s amendment to restore full funding to the nascent commercial crew program, or attempt to block the act entirely. If the act does move forward, I also encourage our senators to vote for Senator Udall’s amendment to ensure that the Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program is fully funded at $15 million/year, as this program also helps the commercial spaceflight sector get off the ground, so to speak.
I believe that attempts to preserve elements of the existing Constellation program are largely motivated by job retention. While this is an understandable motivation in these difficult times, the proposed NASA plan would create new jobs that would partially offset those lost, and lead to a more robust commercial spaceflight sector that will benefit the entire country.
- RLV and Space Transport News listing of key senators for this vote
- D-Day for NewSpace (Space Frontier Foundation’s call for support of the Warner amendment)
- Letter from Former Columbia Accident Investigation Board Members Regarding Crew Safety (they support commercial crew)
- Augustine Commission’s findings (Section 4.3 discusses the Constellation program)
- Orlando Sentinel article on Augustine Commission’s findings on the Constellation program, which I believe are relevant for Senator Nelson’s proposed heavy lift program (the program is likely to be a derivative of the Ares 5):
“We are on a path right now, for a system that requires [roughly] double the current budget just to operate,” said Jeff Greason, a panel member and co-founder of XCOR Aerospace.
“If Santa Claus brought us this [Constellation] system tomorrow, fully developed, and the budget didn’t change, our next action would have to be to cancel it,” he said.
“Yup,” responded (former astronaut Dr. Sally) Ride.
- ULA Proposes On-Orbit Gas Stations for Space Exploration (an exploration program based on existing launch vehicles, commercially acquired)