Relying on Commercial Crew "A Colossal Mistake" Says Tom Young

Relying on Commercial Crew "A Colossal Mistake" Says Tom Young

At a House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee hearing today, A. Thomas Young, Lockheed Martin (retired), described the proposal to turn over crew transportation to low Earth orbit (LEO) a “colossal mistake” and said that “a commercial crew option should not be approved.”

The hearing was called to discuss President Obama’s proposed changes to NASA’s exploration program, particularly the cancellation of the Constellation Program, which includes development of a new crew transportation system to replace the Space Shuttle for taking crews to LEO. That system would be comprised of the Ares I launch vehicle and the Orion spacecraft.

Mr. Young, an industry legend who often chairs blue ribbon studies on civil and national security space programs and the problems that bedevil them, said he believed that neither continuing to fly the Shuttle nor relying on the Russian Soyuz system for the duration of the “Shuttle-gap” provided a long-term solution. A U.S. indigenous human space flight capability is needed, and the Ares I/Orion is the program of choice in his view. Commercial crew, he stressed, is “not ready” and would mean decades without a U.S. capability to launch people into space.

Most members of the subcommittee were clearly in favor of continuing the Constellation program, but Representative Rohrabacher (R-CA) is strongly in favor of President Obama’s decision to rely on commercial crew. Rep. Rohrabacher said he believed it would be better to “go with commercial” rather than continue to rely on a government agency. He made the analogy with the early railroad and airplane industries and said that turning LEO flights over to the commercial space sector at this juncture would put the country on “the verge of a huge step forward into space.”

Mr. Young reiterated that he was “strongly against commercial crew,” but that his issues were not with industry, but with the assumption that industry can succeed on its own: “industry is not constituted to carry out these things by itself.” A more responsible path forward would be a government-industry partnership featuring the “integration of capabilities” that NASA and industry each possess, he added. He reviewed the problems experienced by the national security space sector in the 1990s when a management approach called Total System Performance Responsibility (TSPR) was instituted where the government told its program managers to “back off” and let industry manage the programs. The result, he said, was a series of programs for which, on average, “we are getting half the program content for twice the cost, 6 years late.” To be successful, one needs the “expertise of NASA and the implementation capability of industry,” he stressed.

Doug Cooke, NASA Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems, answered a bevy of questions about whether NASA is observing the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act that prohibits NASA from cancelling the Constellation program until Congress approves such action in a future appropriations act. He assured the subcommittee that NASA is not cancelling any contracts, although it is withdrawing requests for proposals for future work on the program. Subcommittee chair Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) stressed that Mr. Cooke was there to answer questions about NASA’s new plan, but that he was not the architect of it.

A critical question that emerged from yesterday’s hearing before the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA and today’s is what are the expected costs of the Ares I program. At yesterday’s hearing, NASA Administrator Bolden said that he was told the annual cost of the program was $4-4.5 billion and a single launch was $1.6 billion. Today, Mr. Cooke said that the most recent estimate he had of the “marginal cost” of an Ares I flight was $176 million. To some extent the difference between $176 million and $1.6 billion per flight may be between the marginal cost (how much it would cost to add one more launch) versus the full cost of a mission (the annual cost of the program divided by the number of flights), but there is little information available in the public record as to the origin of those figures or the estimated $4-4.5 billion annual cost of the Ares I program cited by Gen. Bolden.

A summary of the hearing will be available soon. A webcast is available on the 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.