15 July 2010
News - Habitat (Ugly)
Obama's Vision for NASA Veers Off-Course
Senate approves modified version of Authorization Act
by Carol Pinchefsky
Sadly, the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which determines NASA’s policy, was passed by the senate today, heavily altered from Obama’s proposal in February in one key crucial area. Section 403 highlights the problem with the act--there will be no commercial crew development of space in 2011; commercial development of space is limited to cargo, but only in 2012:

c. 403 - Requirements Applicable to Development of Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities - NASA cannot enter into any contract or procurement agreement for follow-on commercial crew development during FY 2011. Allows support of commercially developed crew or cargo launch capability starting in 2012 contingent upon completion of establishment of human rating requirements, a commercial market assessment and a procurement system review. Requires consideration of the anticipated contribution of government cost, expertise, technology and infrastructure needed to support any commercially-developed crew or cargo launch capability. Establishes milestones and minimum performance objectives to be achieved before procurement authority is granted. Requires commercial crew capabilities to also provide crew rescue services.

This is a disappointment, to put it mildly, for those of us who want to see the development of private spaceflight. According to Will Watson, executive director of the Space Frontier Foundation, “What Obama was proposing is creating an orbital industrial infrastructure, that would be self-sustaining, that NASA would be a customer, much like the us military is a customer for DOI and other commercial satellites… [B]ut the development and maintenance of these commercial systems would not be on the government.”

With companies such as SpaceX poised to produce spacecraft for the purpose of carrying passengers, the US government “had the opportunity to accelerate growth of these [commercial ventures] by becoming an anchor tenant,” said Watson. In other words, Uncle Sam could have put the rocket fuel in the already-ignited New Space movement.

The problem with the Authorization Act of 2010 lay with the senators from states with vested interested in maintaining the status quo, as well as public perception that shifting NASA’s priorities from manned space flight to private industry would result in loss of jobs.

Watson said, “Unfortunately [Obama’s proposal] wasn’t sold very well by the administration, and so the general public started believing the space program is going away. The space program as we know it is going away, but the space program as we know it is has been the way NASA has chosen to show us, which is a 1960s space program.”

In other words, NASA has made little progress on advancing human spaceflight since the Apollo missions – the safest and most cost-effective way of getting to and from space is still a Soyuz.

Because there is support for commercial space, in the form of cargo missions, it is likely Obama will approve this policy. But it would be a wasted effort on several levels:

• Funds that should have been used to develop advanced aviation technology will now be used to develop a heavy-lift rocket (presumably for a Mars mission), starting in 2015, as well as the Orion capsule.

• According to Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL)’s press release, commercial space has been < a href="http://billnelson.senate.gov/news/details.cfm?id=326398&">allocated $1.6 billion for development over the next three years, which is far less than Obama’s proposed $6 billion spread over five years.

• The US will extend their involvement with the ISS until 2020. But as only the Russian government accepts commercial passengers, the US will not see any return on investment. In fact, the Warner amendment, proposed by Senator Warner (D-VA) to prevent restrictions on commercial crew, was not attached.

However, the potential new policy is not a complete waste. The Constellation program is dead in the water, so American taxpayers won’t have to fund a cut-down version of the Apollo missions. Because of that, the Ares I launch vehicle is also off the table.

But best of all, the desire for people to visit space themselves has been recognized by businesses such as Virgin. Space tourism, and as a consequence the rest of a real space industry, will happen.

It will happen, alas, but more slowly.
Share |
Carol Pinchefsky 15 July 2010
Please send comments, critiques and queries to feedback@spacefuture.com.
All material copyright Space Future Consulting except as noted.