Committee Democrats Press for More Information on NASA’s Commercial Crew Program
(Washington, DC) – Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing entitled “NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program: Accomplishments and Challenges”. The purpose of the hearing was to receive testimony from participants in the second stage of NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program (known as CCDev2), as well as from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the NASA Inspector General (IG) on progress made and challenges remaining to develop privately owned, commercially operated crew launch capabilities.
With the retirement of the Space Shuttle now complete, NASA is relying on its contract with the Russian Federal Space Agency for provision of crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station (ISS) for NASA crew and NASA-sponsored astronauts. NASA’s current contract with the Russians for crew transportation services will end in mid-2016, around the time when NASA plans to transition to using U.S. commercially-provided crew transportation. NASA has funded preliminary design of commercial crew subsystems using Space Act Agreements.
In welcoming the executives from the commercial space industry, Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson [D-TX] commended their companies for doing exciting work, and being a great example of American industry’s capacity for innovation. She said that the hearing was a unique opportunity to hear from them about their accomplishments, their aspirations, and the challenges they face. However, Congresswoman Johnson also said that she could not let her enthusiasm for entrepreneurial innovation override her responsibility as a Member of Congress to take a clearheaded look at the issues associated with NASA’s commercial crew proposal because much of the information the Committee has sought from NASA, such as the basis for projected development costs, has yet to be provided despite repeated requests. She said “Given the cuts that are being made and contemplated to NASA’s and our other federal agencies’ important missions—as well as to essential services for the most vulnerable in our society—I’ve got to be convinced that the benefits of NASA’s commercial crew proposal outweigh the costs before I can be comfortable supporting it”.
Referencing the remark made by NASA’s Deputy Administrator last week that NASA has an analysis that says NASA will require $6 billion over five years for commercial crew development, Congresswoman Johnson stated “As a result, I and other Members will have to decide whether it is worth paying a $6 billion premium in taxpayer dollars in order to have a domestic ISS commercial crew capability available to replace the Russian system for a four-year period—assuming the U.S. commercial crew systems are certified operational by 2016. Now I would rather not pay money to the Russians either, but I will find it very hard to justify to my constituents spending an extra $6 billion to transport our astronauts to the ISS for a limited amount of time unless I can also credibly argue that doing so will open up a broad new competitive market in commercial crew transportation for American industry.” In that regard, she added “I don’t think that the prospect of spending six billion taxpayer dollars to enable either super-rich tourists or non-U.S. astronauts to fly into orbit is going to be seen as a worthwhile priority by very many of my constituents in the current fiscal environment, and I have a feeling that many of my fellow Members will also find that to be the case.”
In his statement for the record, Acting Ranking Member of the Committee’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Jerry Costello (D-IL) stated that NASA’s commercial crew development activities offer exciting opportunities for the future, and noted that “these public-private partnerships represent a new approach to acquisition and human spaceflight that pose unique questions and challenges for the agency, its commercial partners, and Congress”. Congressman Costello said he would seek to understand (1) how confident NASA is in the cost and schedule estimates for achieving U.S. commercial crew services by about 2016 as well as the basis for those estimates; (2) what steps NASA and its commercial partners are taking to ensure that future U.S. commercial crew transportation systems are safe, and (3) if there are trade-offs on risks given NASA’s plans for a fixed government investment in the development of those systems.
In their testimonies, executives from the participants of NASA’s CCDev2 program reported progress in meeting their agreed to CCDev2 milestones, expressed satisfaction with technical assistance from NASA, and voiced support for the agency’s proposed acquisition strategy for follow-on commercial crew development contracts. Several executives said that NASA would be a primary market driver but they did not expect NASA to be the sole user of their respective transportation systems. Nevertheless, financial government support may need to be provided beyond just funding commercial crew development.
In characterizing liability risk as one of two major programmatic challenges his company has identified, Boeing’s Space Exploration Vice President and General Manager John Elbon said “With limited performance history, it will be difficult for industry to insure against these monetary losses at reasonable rates. As such, in order to close a business case, it will be necessary for NASA, the FAA and Congress to work together to provide indemnification and liability limitations.”
William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said that NASA planned to release its final Request for Proposals for the initial design contract (the first of two design and development phases) by the end of 2011. He also stated that NASA anticipated that one or more operational commercial transportation systems “will be available for the transportation of astronauts to and from the ISS—as well as the provision of rescue services—by the middle of this decade, assuming that the CCP [Commercial Crew Program] is funded at the requested level.” Paul Martin, NASA’s Inspector General, highlighted the findings in his office’s June 2011 report on the Commercial Crew Development Program.
Ranking Member of the Committee’s Subcommittee on Technology and Innovation Donna Edwards (D-MD) raised concerns about the taxpayers’ potential exposure to unknown costs and liabilities from indemnification agreements. In addition, she requested and the NASA witness, William Gerstenmaier, agreed to provide the Committee with the analysis supporting the $6 billion development cost estimate recently referenced by the NASA Deputy Administrator.