Commercial Crew Critical for ISS, but SLS/Orion Needed for Future, Senators Stress

Commercial Crew Critical for ISS, but SLS/Orion Needed for Future, Senators Stress

At a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing today, three Senators directed mostly friendly questions at a panel of government and private sector witnesses regarding the risks and opportunities of commercial spaceflight.  Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) emphasized that while commercial crew is needed for the near term, NASA should not “shortchange the future.”  NASA needs to adequately fund the Space Launch System (SLS) and its Orion capsule, she insisted.  As for that future, subcommittee chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Michael Gold of Bigelow Aerospace were bullish on the future of microgravity research for the pharmaceutical industry in particular.

Hutchison sternly chastised NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden at an earlier hearing for, in her view, baldly taking $300 million from the SLS/Orion effort to put into commercial crew in the FY2013 budget request.  Today, she wanted an assurance from NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations Bill Gerstenmaier that NASA would not do that again.  He said his job was to deliver commercial crew as well as SLS/Orion in a timely manner “and we’re working hard to do that” within existing budget constraints. He agreed that NASA is committed to move both forward and to “find the balance to keep human spaceflight in this nation strong.”   While that was not an explicit “yes,” Hutchison appeared to accept the answer as the assurance she requested.  Her focus was on ensuring that “in 2020, when ISS will go away, most likely,” the United States does not face another gap in human spaceflight like today.

Hutchison is retiring this year.  She was a key figure in designating the International Space Station (ISS) as a national laboratory, and in passing the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  The Act struck a compromise between allowing the Obama Administration to proceed with its plan to turn crew transportation to low Earth orbit (LEO) over to the private sector and Congress’s desire to keep NASA in the human spaceflight business by building “beyond LEO” systems — SLS and Orion — to take astronauts further into space.   

Nelson also talked about what would happen when “we get to 2020 and ISS is deactivated,” but in the sense of lamenting that no one is paying attention to the important research being done there already, especially in vaccines.

How long ISS will operate is important for the business plans of companies developing commercial cargo and crew systems since many anticipate NASA will be the major customer for those services.  Gerstenmaier said that NASA needs two crew flights a year, four people each time, to support ISS.   If a spacecraft can carry more than four, NASA will decide how best to use the remaining capacity for cargo or additional people.  He said NASA hopes to increase the ISS crew size to seven, the number for which it was originally designed.  It is currently limited to six because of the capacity of the Russian Soyuz spacecraft that ferry crews back and forth.   Nelson pressed Gerstenmaier on when commercial crew services will be available if Congress provides only $525 million instead of $830 million as the Administration requested for FY2013.   Gerstenmaier said that NASA is planning on 2017 if it receives that level for FY2013, but a higher level in future years.

If commercial crew became available in 2017 and the ISS ends operations in 2020, that is a very limited NASA market.   However, Michael Gold of Bigelow Aerospace stressed that his company is building inflatable space modules also as research facilities in orbit and hopes to attract countries like Japan and Singapore to use them.  He said their business model is not all that different from the ISS and sought to “get rid of some misperceptions” that Bigelow is building a space hotel or a space casino.  It is not building either, he emphasized.

Instead Bigelow’s business model is signing up foreign governments to do microgravity research and development.   He joined with Nelson in extolling the promise of microgravity research.   “We are grossly underestimating the impact on our economy” initially in “pharma and biotech,” he exclaimed (using pharma as shorthand for the pharmaceutical industry).  He cautioned that the “microgravity revolution will happen in pharma and other sectors.  The question is will it happen in America or in China.”   First, however, routine, affordable access to space is needed, at dramatically lower prices than the approximately $60 million per seat Russia charges NASA.  “We are extraordinarily dependent on the success of the commercial crew program,” Gold said. 

Gold also stressed that regulatory issues are just as important as price.  He ranted against the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR), saying that Bigelow had to spend about $1 million to comply with ITAR when it launched two test inflatable modules on Russian launch vehicles.  What really irritated him, he said, was that he doubted any sensitive technology was protected.   Nelson reminded him that China acquired sensitive technology when U.S. companies exported satellites to China for launch and “balance” is needed.

Despite the publicity on Monday about the FAA-NASA agreement on each agency’s roles and responsibilities for ensuring the safety of commercial human spaceflight, the topic got little attention at the hearing.  Instead, FAA’s Pamela Melroy focused on the need for an extension to the government’s authority to indemnify commercial launch companies against third party liability claims resulting from launch or reentry accidents.  The authority has been extended several times over the years and currently expires on December 31, 2012.  The House Science, Space and Technology Committee devoted an entire hearing to that topic two weeks ago.  The Government Accountability Office’s (GAO’s) Gerald Dillingham said today that GAO supports a short term extension while a complete review of the issue is conducted.  The Obama Administration wants a 5-year extension.  At the House hearing, industry witnesses wanted the authority  made permanent.  GAO also wants to look at whether the indemnification should be broadened to include on-orbit activities in addition to launch and reentry.  Nelson said “we’ve simply got to contiune” that regime and subcommittee ranking member John Boozman (R-AR) seemed to agree.  (The House committee also appeard supportive of an extension.)

As for the safety of commercial crew flights, Michael Lopez-Alegria of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) said CSF agrees that “the principle that NASA should have the final say so in safety is key.”  He is a former astronaut.  Melroy, another former astronaut, said the FAA is restricted in what discussions it can have with industry about pasenger safety until it has a formal rulemaking underway.   The FAA is currently prohibited by law from imposing new passenger safety regulations for commercial spacecraft until 2015.   Gerstenmaier said NASA has publicly released its safety requirements so companies know what they must do to comply with them.

Boozman asked about the need for NASA to get another waiver from the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA).  Gerstenmaier repeated what he has said in other hearings that whether or not NASA purchases crew flights from Russia after 2016 when the current waiver expires, ISS operations are interdependent and another waiver is needed.  The law prohibits NASA from paying or making in-kind agreements with Russia for anything related to the ISS.  The law is intended to restrain Russia from providing certain technologies to those three countries.   Nelson said “we don’t have any choice” about passing another waiver.

Prepared statements and the webcast are available on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation committee’s website.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.