NASA IG Warns on Commercial Crew as NASA Celebrates End of COTS

NASA IG Warns on Commercial Crew as NASA Celebrates End of COTS

On the same day NASA and its commercial cargo partners gave themselves a pat on the back for completing the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) development program, NASA’s Inspector General issued a report warning about obstacles ahead for COTS’s cousin, the commercial crew program.

During a press conference yesterday, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden presented awards to the leaders of the NASA, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corporation teams that successfully implemented the development of SpaceX’s Falcon 9/Dragon and Orbital’s Antares/Cygnus cargo space transportation systems through the COTS program.  The COTS program has now ended and NASA is purchasing services from the two companies using those systems under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.  NASA’s Alan Lindenmoyer and Phil McAlister, SpaceX’s Gwynne Shotwell and Orbital’s Frank Culbertson lauded the public-private partnership that created that success while the Aerospace Industries Association’s Frank Slazer highlighted the importance of the effort to the U.S. space industrial base and utilization of the International Space Station (ISS).

As Bolden mentioned, COTS — usually called commercial cargo — dates back to the George W. Bush Administration and he credited the leadership of both the Bush and Obama administrations in seeing COTS through to its successful conclusion.  The question is whether the commercial crew program will see similar success.

The Bush Administration’s decision to terminate the space shuttle after construction of the ISS was completed meant that alternatives were needed to take cargo and crews to and from ISS.  In 2006, then-NASA Administrator Mike Griffin initiated the COTS program to solve the cargo problem.  The idea was that NASA would provide some, but not all, of the funding for two companies in competition to develop their own space transportation systems to deliver cargo to the ISS.  NASA would serve as one market for those services with the expectation that the companies would find other markets as well.   Thus the government and the private sector would be partners in developing these capabilities.

Using the same approach to develop systems to take crews to and from ISS — “commercial crew” — was considered at the time, but not pursued vigorously.  The Bush Administration was committed to operating ISS only until 2015 or 2016, and NASA planned to use the Ares 1 rocket and Orion spacecraft it was developing under the Constellation program to fulfill those needs.   When the Obama Administration canceled Constellation in 2010, it put all its eggs into the commercial crew basket.   Three companies — SpaceX, Boeing, and Sierra Nevada — are now working on commercial crew systems.  NASA hopes that two of them will succeed so there is competition and redundancy in providing those services beginning in 2017.   

Just as there was a lot of skepticism about commercial cargo (and to some extent there still is in terms of whether the business case will close), there are many critics of commercial crew.   NASA has been unable to convince Congress to provide the level of funding the agency needs to help ensure that two companies will make it through the development phase.  Some in Congress are pressuring the agency to choose just one company to support, but NASA insists that competition and redundancy are highly desirable.  For FY2014, NASA is requesting $821 million.  The House Appropriations Committee recommended $500 million.  The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $700 million.

The report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) pointed to the funding uncertainty as one of several obstacles confronting the commercial crew program.  The report gives credit to the three commercial crew companies for “successfully executing their spaceflight development efforts,” but concluded NASA faces four “significant challenges”:

  • Unstable funding,
  • Alignment of cost estimates with program schedule,
  • Challenges in providing timely requirement and certification guidance, and
  • Spaceflight coordination issues with other Federal agencies.

The OIG did not make any recommendations on the issue of unstable funding, but noted that for FY2011-2013, NASA received only 38 percent of its requested funding for the program, resulting in a delay from FY2015 to FY2017 of the first expected commercial crew flight.  “The combination of a future flat-funded profile and lower-than-expected levels of funding over the past 3 years may delay the first crewed flight beyond 2017 and closer to 2020, the current expected end of the operational life of the ISS.”  The report includes the following table showing NASA’s successive 5-year budget projections for the commercial crew program beginning in FY2009.

Table 3:  Commercial Crew Program Budget Requests by FY (Dollars in millions)
Source: NASA Office of Inspector General. NASA’s Management of the Commercial Crew Program. Report No. IG-14-001. November 13, 2013. p. 17.

At the COTS press briefing, Bolden said “the completion of COTS is simply a passing of the torch of innovation to our partners in the commercial crew program” and called on Congress to provide the needed funding so flights could begin in 2017. 

As for the other challenges, the OIG report recommended that  –

  • NASA ensure that managers of space system development programs that use Space Act Agreements provide detailed cost estimates for each year of the program before preliminary designs are completed, and
  • NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate (Bill Gerstenmaier) –
    • examine whether more comprehensive cost estimates should be developed before completion of Critical Design Reviews by the three commercial crew companies,
    • routinely track adherence to the 90-day goal for responding to contractor requests for alternate requirements standards and variances and explore ways to facilitate the process, and
    • in conjunction with the FAA and Air Force, establish a tri-agency Safety Steering Group for resolving issues involving crew and public safety during commercial spaceflight operations.

The report says that NASA and the Associate Administrator agreed with the recommendations.


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