Is the Senate NASA Bill Passed by the Commerce Committee Better than Obama’s New NASA?

On February 1st, 2010 NASA unveiled President Obama’s new vision for NASA that ultimately did not go over well with Congress (primarily because it was not vetted with them before hand), with America (due to the media’s hold on the wording that manned spaceflight was ending), and with many incumbent NASA workers (do I need to explain why?)  Who did the new vision go over well with?  It was a huge success with those who call themselves New Space, those who say they aren’t waiting for the government to go explore Low Earth Orbit (LEO), the moon, and beyond.  There are some really interesting companies in this arena including Masten Space Systems, SpaceX, Google Lunar XPrize, and many others.  Why did they like the new budget?  Because it invested in them and their ideas.  The new budget invested in Commercial Space to LEO being that of the International Space Station (ISS) and Research and Development (R&D) for the future.  I think a future and interesting blog post will surround the idea of these companies who are branching out to do it themselves yet go after the government contracts, with SpaceX being a prime example with public statements being made that over half of their funding has come from NASA for the COTS (cargo delivery to ISS) program.

Fast forward to July 15, 2010 when the Senate Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation unanimously passed their response to Obama on the FY2011-2014 NASA Budget.  The 99 page draft of the Senate’s budget was posted earlier in the week, but was marked up with quite a few amendments of which many were approved.  I personally have not seen the individual amendments and you have an online link to where they are stored, please share them.  A summary of the Senate’s budget was posted, but the full version has not been made available yet as far as I know.

Even though the Senate Bill still needs to pass another Committee and the full Senate and we have yet to hear much from the House side of Congress, I thought I would take the opportunity to comment on the Senate Bill because there is still time to craft and mold the future.

Regarding extending ISS to 2020 and adding an additional Shuttle flight, in my opinion these are both no-brainers and don’t require discussion.

What I will address is Commercial Crew, Heavy Lift & the Multi-Purpose Spacecraft, and Technology Development.  The major flaw in Obama’s proposal was that he sacrificed current exploration beyond LEO by delaying them until no earlier than 2025 for R&D and technology development.  Any successful company can share with you that their success is not just based on a current product or R&D.  They invest in both.  They are always investing in their future while executing their current product line.  NASA too needs to take a good solid look at how they can best perform R&D and technology development for the future and execute exploration missions in the here and now.  The Senate Bill is a step in the right direction, however the funding levels remain unrealistic in the current environment.  Perhaps a future blog post will transpire on how NASA can change internally to save money and meet the goals and objectives of the future.

Commercial Crew

Why do I like the wording of Sections 402 and 403 in the Senate Bill?  Because it continues the Commercial Crew Development Program (CCDev) through 2011, providing funding for companies to continue to develop their concepts for Commercial Crew and allows time for NASA to figure out how to run a Commercial Crew program from human rating requirements to procurement.  Consider it the year of transition, and it is a year that both NASA and the Commercial companies will need in order to be successful.

Heavy Lift & Multi-Purpose Spacecraft

I did not understand why under Obama’s proposal NASA would study Heavy Lift alternatives and perform additional studies delaying the decision for what architecture would be used until 2015 (and the next administration) therefore delaying a built vehicle until the early 2020’s.   So it’s actually a good thing that the Senate Bill provides for a Heavy Lift capability and to start working on it right away which means we can begin exploring in years rather than decades.  In Section 302 of the Senate Bill it calls out for an evolutionary design of the heavy lift vehicle.  The spacecraft, built upon the years of work NASA has done on the Orion vehicle to go to ISS and the moon will be evolved to add Mars, Mars’ Moons, and Asteroids.

Technology Development

While not funded at the original levels under Obama’s proposal, there is still funding for technology development and it remains to be seen by the time the final Senate bill gets passed for how much will be funded.   Technology, including Research & Development is a vital component for the future.  However not at the expense of current exploration missions.

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13 responses to “Is the Senate NASA Bill Passed by the Commerce Committee Better than Obama’s New NASA?

  1. Good comment and analysis. Hopefully Congress (both Houses) will move on this before Nov. elections.

    Your reasoning about R&D being a joint activity with exploration is correct and essential. Those endeavors are not mutually exclusive. They are vitally interdependent.

    The limited, IMHO, space awareness within the OSTP has contributed to Obama’s shortsighted plan. We should lobby for an increased representation of space science and space exploration technology in that important advisory body. Look up OSTP, look up.

  2. The president’s proposed NASA budget announced in February and the recently announced space policy appear to me to be a blind continuation of Clinton era politics with only superficial thinking having been added. IOW, it appears to be the result of space not being a priority — hence confused and/or poorly focused direction to the nation’s space agency.

    *That* is disheartening! Our (creaking) economy is heavily dependent on technology, and NASA is a well demonstrated source for technology and innovation. It should be a key element of any policy meant to build a better, more sound US economy.

    And don’t get me started on “commercial crew launch” that needs the government to cancel existing contracts and to fund them instead. What’s commercial about that? It’s just redirecting government spending…only in this case the money goes to them. What “commercial” really means has nothing to do with the true meaning of the word “commercial” (which means commercially funded). They’re twisted use of the word “commercial” is to mean “government funded…but without government oversight or direction.” What a great idea — give me all the money and let me do with it as I please! Gotta love that!

    Where I grew up, the guy that pays the bills calls the shots. Government funding without government direction is — ridiculous.

    If they want to use their own money — or commercial funding — they can do as they please already — there’s no government entity standing in their way. If they truly want commercial crew launch…well then, go right ahead and do it! Best of luck — let me know how that works out.

  3. The FY2011 budget proposal was centered on space technology research and development for precisely the reasons you mentioned, dgg4. I know because I heard Dr. Bobby Braun, NASA’s new Chief Technologist, say so with my own ears.

    As for commercial crew, that means that the company owns the vehicle and provides services to NASA. I know many of the folks working on commercial cargo and they certainly have not abrogated their oversight duties. I don’t see how it would be any different with commercial crew. This transition is about changing the way NASA does business so it can free up resources to focus on BEO exploration and bolster private industry – as the Space Act itself requires.

    As for the Space Launch System, it is a rocket in search of a mission. This is parochial politics at its worst.

  4. Dear jwkugler, the point that “commercial” means the companies own the vehicle….is exactly my point. If government money pays for the development of the vehicle, the government should own it. If the company pays for the vehicle development – they are free to do that at any time they please — that being one of the many benefits of living in a free country with a free market system.

    If, as seems to be suggested by your comment, the companies want the government to pay for the vehicle development but not get to own what they paid for — that seems like using taxpayer dollars to enrich a few select company owners and their shareholders — and that is not the right use of taxpayer dollars.

    If, on the other hand, they want to be a vehicle development contractor for the government where the government pays for and owns the design of the vehicle…well, that’s the system we have now.

    In short, I fail to see how having the government pay for a company’s vehicle development can be called “commercial” for any reasonable definition of the word “commercial”. A more correct term for what they’re proposing is “government funded, privately owned”.

  5. There’s simply no question: the Nelson Rocket is about pork.. it is not what is best for the space program. It’s about the jobs program, not the space program.

    The reason why Obama called for *study* was because Shuttle-derived and Ares-derived vehicles are not sustainable, and there’s *new* technologies available which can fundamentally change that.

    For example, decades of experience has taught us that liquid hydrogen handling is simply more trouble than it is worth.. but we really want that performance, so what can we do? One compromise is an RP-1 first stage and an LH2 upper stage. Another solution is liquid methane.

    Propellant depots are another disruptive technology that will force NASA to rethink how they do space missions. It makes *no sense* to fund research into propellant depots and build a heavy lift rocket as inevitably one will dejustify the other.

    Simply: you like this bill because you think it will save your job.

  6. Digg4 — The government is trying to stimulate the commercial spaceflight industry by investing in it. I think of this as a comparison to U.S. expansion westward, to the building of the U.S. railroad system, and the U.S. airlines – which by the way both the railroads and airlines still need government intervention roughly every decade to stay afloat. This time we are expanding upward.

    You are correct, it is a different contract mechanism and might end up similar to what NASA is doing with COTS (cargo delivery) – (1) paying SpaceX and Orbital payouts when they reach pre-arranged milestones in developing the capability and (2) paying for those vehicles for launch to the ISS.

  7. Quantumg – A better response would have been I like this bill because it moves up manned exploration beyond BEO which I have stated numerous times that I believe is necessary.

    No business would every succeed without a balanced portfolio. It’s common sense. Invest in R&D for the future and current exploration missions (in NASA’s case).

    What we have yet to see from Congress is the adequate funding to perform a balanced portfolio. It will be interesting to see what the final bills look like coming out of the House and Senate.

  8. Interesting set of comments. I agree with digg4 that the way commercial is being applied is really not commercial and he is right about the proper use of taxpayer’s $$. Quantumg comments seem to me a little tense. What both Nelson and Hutchison are trying to do is (1) keep space employment and $$ alive and well in their respective venues, and (2) enhance the onward and upward growth of the space industry. As for pork, well there are a lot of gifted NASA/Contractor folk who are looking at no pork, chicken or whatever if things don’t get put back together.

    The hoisting and waving of the banners for ongoing and growing space sciences and space exploration is up to all of us who are dedicated spacefarers in both spirit and fact. If we can get both government and industry to willingly and eagerly move in that direction then we are making things better across the globe. We either do it or it will dribble down to nothing and when that happens society will regress. So it is much more than just flying rockets, robots and astronauts. Its about our next step forward as a civilization.

    Lastly, unlike all we have done in the past, space exploration must evolve into a global endeavor. Yes there will be true commercial activities, lots of them and most likely profitable, but the key element is the united effort to look beyond our planet, out solar system and eventually our galaxy. No one nation will be able to consistently sustain that.

  9. dgg4,
    I don’t think you understand how the commercial cargo program actually worked, if that’s what you think is going on here. NASA put in a relatively small amount of seed money and the companies had to reach certain technical and private investment milestones to continue. Once they had sufficiently proven their technical merit and business case to NASA, fixed-price service contracts were given to SpaceX and Orbital to deliver cargo to the Station.

    Thus, for less than it cost NASA to build the mobile platform for Ares I and conduct the Ares I-X configuration demonstration, the Agency was able to grow competitive American owned-and-operated cargo services for the ISS. How is getting better value for the taxpayer dollar through legal public-private partnerships not an appropriate use of funds?

    Given the success of this approach, I agree with Cindy and would be very surprised if it was much different for commercial crew.

  10. jwkugler – actually the purpose of COTS is just to allow companies to develop new capabilities with seed money from NASA. Later, NASA put out an RFP allowing anyone to compete for service contracts for Station resupply and it just so happens NASA chose SpaceX and Orbital as the winners of that solicitation.

  11. I’m sorry, jwkugler, but I am familiar with the COTS program and what was in the presidents proposed budget, $6B to pay “commercial” companies to develop rocket designs that they own and then make the government pay to use is dramatically different. I wish the proposal for “commercial crew launch” program had been like COTS. Unfortunately, the similarity was only in the name. That is why I objected to the misleading use of the word “commercial” for a program that was anything but.

  12. What I continue to read here appears as a struggle over the definition and role of commercial vs government (NASA). One good aspect of the Obama Space Plan is the increased emphasis on joint efforts between civil and private elements in all of the space sciences; including deep space exploration.

    We need to overcome our individual feelings, pro and con, about government or corporate America. There is no denying that in both venues there have been disturbing events and outcomes. Some, such as the Gulf oil spill, are incredibly infuriating. At the same time, the fickleness of Congress and the obvious dereliction of duties by some government agencies can and is equally infuriating. If we let these grievances dominate we scuttle the best hope for a growing space program. Those of us in the space industry as well as those of us who are supportive outsiders need to come together, stick together and create a significant positive step toward becoming a truly spacefaring nation.

    It is not NASA, it is not SpaceX or Orbital that will make this happen, it is us; all of us coming together in positive and creative ways. We need to stop shooting arrows and start shaking hands.

  13. Orlando Sentinel article —

    Senate compromise may be setting up NASA for another failure

    http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/space/os-nasa-compromise-policy-20100722,0,3975954.story