Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Not-So-Great Compromise: Commercial Crew

If you've been reading this series of posts from the beginning, by now you will have noticed a pattern. In the areas of the NASA budget where there is some disagreement, the Senate bills cut funding for the Administration proposals so much that those areas cannot accomplish what they are intended to accomplish. I don't intend to discuss all of them. Commercial crew is one example that deserves some discussion, though. Here's how commercial crew fares in the Administration and Senate Authorization proposals (the Senate Appropriations Committee was less favorable to Commercial Crew in the year it covered, FY2011):


If we extrapolate the Senate's post-Shuttle, post-COTS figures, over FY2011-FY2015, Commercial Crew gets $2.3B from the Senate, and $5.8B from the Administration. That's a dramatic cut by the Senate, especially considering the concern that some members of the Senate say they have for astronaut safety. Some members of the Senate are also critical of one commercial space company in particular, but it seems that if the Senate has a Commercial Crew line but drastically underfunds it, only companies like that one with a focus of low cost will be able to compete for the money in the commercial crew line!

It should be noted that Senator Nelson has stated that the Senate's Commercial Crew funding would be stretched to FY2016, and would include the full amount requested by the Administration by then. That's a bit hard to believe. Look how far behind the Senate is by FY2013 already. Then consider that a sharp increase in Commercial Crew funding would have to come at the expense of some other program. What budget will be cut for this far-future promised Commercial Crew increase? Will it come from the SLS? Orion? I doubt it. Will the SLS or Orion suddenly need far less funding in FY2014? I doubt it. Quite the opposite is more likely. Those programs will either hit the usual schedule delays and cost overruns, or they will need to start thinking about big end-of-development costs for major tests, followed by high operations costs. The promised future Commercial Crew funds sound like Dr. Griffin's promise of commercial markets on the Moon based on government lunar infrastructure needs. That's a good idea, but when it's obvious that your particular transportation architecture isn't going to lead to government lunar infrastructure in the first place, the promise has a particularly hollow ring.

In my hypothetical improvement to the Senate's Not-So-Great "Compromise", half of the $1B/year shifted from SLS/Orion in favor of robotic precursor missions, exploration technology development and demonstrations, and commercial crew would go to the Commercial Crew line. Over 5 years this would increase the Commercial Crew amount from the Senate's $2.3B to $4.8B, which approaches the Administration's amount. If we continue Commercial Crew development funding for an additional year as suggested by Senator Nelson, and use the same funding rate, we get to $5.8B, which is the amount the Administration proposed.

Suddenly the Senate's Commercial Crew plan that is scaled to almost ensure a risky corner-cutting effort is changed to one that can support a healthy competition with both traditional and new competitors and their differing approaches. It won't be quite as fast as the Administration's original plan, and it won't have nearly as much KSC support, since in the Senate Appropriations report the 21st Century Launch Complex line must give NASA vehicles like the SLS priority, but it should enable multiple independent crew solutions that have enough funding to provide the safety and reliability features we need.

So, to sum up the last few posts, with a $1B/year shift from SLS/Orion to robotic precursors, commercial crew, and exploration technology, we should be able to turn those funding lines from completely non-viable shadows of their intended capabilities to functional, if quite limited, focused, and lean, versions of the original plan. At the same time this compromise can leave SLS/Orion in functional shape, too, as I'll discuss in the next post. Of course there is nothing magical about the $1B/year figure - others could work, too.

Does the plan give the Administration everything they want? No - it still limits and delays funds for robotic precursors, commercial crew, and exploration technology. It leaves the Space Technology line as it is now in the Senate bills. It leave Human Research as it is now in the Senate bills. It eliminates the Administration's Heavy Lift and Propulsion research and development line. It changes the purpose of the 21st Century Launch Complex line. It does all of this, but it gives the Administration some of what it wants by making some of its proposals viable. Unlike the current Senate bills, that would represent a real compromise.

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