Actions have consequences. In a letter sent to the leadership of House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over NASA, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden warned that envisioned funding levels for the Commercial Crew program with likely result in “further schedule slippage and increased cost.” Bolden’s letter is in response to decisions made by House and Senate appropriators to significantly reduce FY 2016 funding for the program below that requested by the Obama Administration.
A long-standing issue repeatedly discussed in authorization and appropriations hearings on NASA’s budget requests is the inability to send American astronauts to the International Space Station on American vehicles launched from U.S. soil. Members of Congress and Administrator Bolden have been adamant that purchasing transportation to the Station on Russian vehicles must end. Bolden has been repeatedly asked if there is a way to shorten the number of years before a U.S. vehicle will be available. He has been emphatic that to keep the program on track, which he believes is instrumental in achieving other NASA goals, Congress must provide the full budget request for the Commercial Crew Program.
The Administration requested $1,243.8 million for the program for FY 2016. House appropriators reduced that amount by $243 million. Senate appropriators made a larger cut of $344 million. The proposed reductions continue the approach Congress has made to the program since the shuttle was retired in 2011. Congress has consistently provided less than NASA has sought, in one year providing less than half of the request. The cumulative effect of these reductions has resulted in two years of schedule slippage, from 2015 to 2017, with Bolden now advising Congress that a U.S. vehicle could be delayed once again. It has been estimated that under the contract modification recently negotiated with Russia that the U.S. will pay approximately $81 million for transportation of each American astronaut to the Station.
The text of Bolden’s August 5 letter 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.”