SpaceX, Orbital, and NASA Reassure Congress on Commercial Cargo

SpaceX, Orbital, and NASA Reassure Congress on Commercial Cargo

Representatives of the two companies under contract to provide commercial cargo services to keep the International Space Station (ISS) operating after the shuttle program ends and a top NASA official reassured a congressional subcommittee this morning that they would be ready soon.

Gwynne Shotwell, President of SpaceX, and Frank Culbertson, Senior Vice President of Orbital Sciences Corp., each told the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee that they are confident they can meet their current schedules. Most of the development work is completed, they said, and test flights of their launch vehicles (Falcon 9 and Taurus 2) and capsules (Dragon and Cygnus) are due to be finished by the end of 2011. Cargo services will begin in 2012, they asserted.

NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Operations, Bill Gerstenmaier, also expressed confidence in the companies’ abilities to meet the schedules. He added, however, that NASA anticipates delays could happen. Consequently, through pre-positioning spares on the ISS, the orbiting facility could operate for as long as a year after the last shuttle leaves later this summer with minimum resupply requirements, Gerstenmaier said. The space shuttle Endeavour is currently docked to the ISS; only one more shuttle flight, Atlantis (STS-135), remains on the manifest. It is currently scheduled to launch on July 8.

A hearing charter prepared in advance by committee staff shows that on a per pound to orbit basis, it will cost more to use commercial cargo services than launching on the space shuttle or Russia’s Progress automated spacecraft. When asked by one of the subcommittee members if those figures were accurate, Gerstenmaier said he would have to look at the numbers carefully and respond at a later time.

Whether the companies and NASA were persuasive was not immediately evident. In press releases immediately after the hearing, Republicans and Democrats sounded perhaps slightly less skeptical than previously, but made clear they will continue to scrutinize the commercial cargo program. The Republicans went further to say that this was just the first in a series of hearings “to provide close oversight of commercial space launch capabilities.”

A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee’s website.

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