Frustrated Bolden Urges Congress to Fund Commercial Crew, Announces $490 Million Contract Modification With Russia

Under Wednesday's contract extension with Roscosmos, the Soyuz TMA-M and Soyuz MS spacecraft will continue to deliver U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), potentially through 2019. Photo Credit: Samantha Cristoforetti/NASA/Twitter

Under Wednesday’s contract extension with Roscosmos, the Soyuz TMA-M and Soyuz MS spacecraft will continue to deliver U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), potentially through 2019. Photo Credit: Samantha Cristoforetti/NASA/Twitter

It was difficult to miss the frustration in NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden’s words, as he submitted a letter to the leadership of the Congressional committees responsible for the space agency’s budget, denouncing the continued lack of adequate funding for the Commercial Crew Program and announcing a modification to the uneasy contract with Russia, which currently provides the United States with its only means of delivering astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). In his letter, dated Wednesday 5 August, Bolden noted that the modification was “due to continued reductions in the President’s funding requests for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program”, that he had been “forced” to extend the contract with Russia and that the cost of continued services “to the U.S. taxpayers” will be approximately $490 million for six Soyuz seats through 2019.

“Since the decision to retire the Space Shuttle in 2004, NASA has been committed to developing a follow-on, low-Earth orbit transportation system and limiting our reliance on others to transport U.S. crew to the International Space Station,” he told Rep. John Culberson (R.-Texas), Chair of the House Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies (CJS) Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the civilian space agency’s budget. “In 2010, I presented to Congress a plan to partner with American industry to return launches to the United States by 2015, if provided the requested level of funding. Unfortunately, for five years now, the Congress, while incrementally increasing annual funding, has not adequately funded the Commercial Crew Program to return human spaceflight launches to American soil this year, as planned.”

As detailed in a recent AmericaSpace article by Jim Hillhouse, the Commercial Crew Program has consistently received an incomplete plate of funding over the last five years. In May 2013, Aviation Week highlighted that this shortfall had already pushed back the first piloted mission by two years past from its original 2015 and required NASA to extend its contract with Russia for Soyuz transportation services by an additional $424 million, for six seats through mid-2017. Even then, Bolden’s frustration at the short-sightedness of Congressional cuts was clear. “I authorized the writing of a check…that went to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency,” he was quoted by Aviation Week. “They are outside the United States the last time I checked.” More recently, speaking before an audience at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas, in January 2015, Bolden remarked—with the merest hint of humor—that “I don’t ever want to have to write another check for [the Russian Federal Space Agency] Roscosmos”.

Boeing CST-100 engineer Tony Castilleja (front) and a fellow engineer (rear) work console inside the company's CST-100 mock up test article. Photo Credit: Boeing

Boeing CST-100 engineer Tony Castilleja (front) and a fellow engineer (rear) work console inside the company’s CST-100 mock up test article. Photo Credit: Boeing

Then, in June, the Senate Appropriations Committee cut $344 million—a reduction of approximately 27 percent—from the Commercial Crew budget, in a move which severely threatened the program and received wide criticism, not least from NASA and the National Space Society (NSS). “I am deeply disappointed that the Senate Appropriations subcommittee does not fully support NASA’s plan to once again launch American astronauts from U.S. soil as soon as possible and instead favors continuing to write checks to Russia,” Bolden said in a statement on 11 June. “Remarkably, the Senate reduces funding for our Commercial Crew Program further than the House already does, compared to the President’s Budget. By gutting this program and turning our backs on U.S. industry, NASA will be forced to continue to rely on Russia to get its astronauts to space and continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into the Russian economy, rather than our own.” Endorsing Bolden’s words, the NSS pointed out that Russia had experienced rocket and spacecraft failures in the first half of 2015, including the ISS-bound Progress M-27M resupply vehicle, and stressed that Congress “will bear a significant share of the responsibility if the next Russian accident results in injuries to astronauts or the abandonment of the ISS”.

In yesterday’s letter, Bolden advised Congress that NASA had “once again” been obliged to modify its existing contract with Russia. “Under this contract modification, the cost of these services to U.S. taxpayers will be approximately $490 million,” he wrote. “I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry—the Boeing Corp. and SpaceX—to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017.”

The irony of again contracting to Russia, in the present geopolitical climate, has not been lost on many commentators, one of which stressed that NASA’s decision “will put money in Russia’s pockets, even as U.S. economic sanctions seek to put pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government over the conflict in Ukraine”, as well as making the United States increasingly “susceptible to threats from Russia”. Following the ousting of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in the spring of 2014, Putin effectively annexed Crimea—a move which provoked enormous international condemnation, as detailed in a two-part article by AmericaSpace’s Leonidas Papadopoulos, available here and here—and sparked a major conflict between pro-revolutionary Ukrainian nationalists and pro-Russian insurgents.

Boeing CST-100 manned space capsule in free flight in low Earth orbit will transport astronaut crews to the International Space Station. Credit: Boeing

Boeing CST-100 manned space capsule in free flight in low Earth orbit will transport astronaut crews to the International Space Station. Credit: Boeing

In the weeks after the annexation, United Launch Alliance (ULA) endured significant criticism over its use of Russian-built RD-180 engines aboard its Atlas V rockets and it was banned under restrictions imposed by the FY2015 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) from using any of the engines purchased after 1 February 2014, chiefly because of the Centennial, Colo.-based organization’s key role in delivering U.S. national security payloads into orbit. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin responded by banning the use of the RD-180 from any U.S. national security launches and these political-level decisions prompted ULA in June 2014 to announce plans to develop a new, home-grown powerplant at a cost of $1 billion by 2019. Last December, the Dulles, Va.-headquartered Orbital Sciences Corp. raised some eyebrows over its decision to contract with Russia on the RD-181 engine, to be utilized by its upgraded Antares booster from early 2016 onwards. Unlike ULA, however, Orbital was unaffected by the NDAA restrictions, since its customers are civil-space-related and do not pertain to U.S. national security requirements.

Against this backdrop, it is easy to see NASA’s angst over Congress’ apparent insistence upon a continued reliance on Russia to launch U.S. astronauts to the ISS, with the $490 million contract modification representing a per-seat fee of $82 million, an increase of more than ten percent above the previous figure of $71 million. Already, U.S. crew members Tim Kopra, Jeff Williams, Kate Rubins, Shane Kimbrough, Peggy Whitson, Mark Vande Hei and Jack Fischer are in training for seven Soyuz TMA-M and upgraded Soyuz MS spacecraft, to be launched between December 2015 and mid-2017, with yesterday’s contract modification expected to provide continued Russian-provided launch services through 2019. Original plans called for Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s Dragon V-2 to undertake unmanned test flights to the ISS by the spring of 2017, before each executing a 14-day piloted mission later that summer. Last month, Bob Behnken—until recently Chief of the Astronaut Office—and fellow veteran shuttle and ISS fliers Eric Boe, Suni Williams and Doug Hurley were named as the initial members of a training group for the first Commercial Crew voyages.

The SpaceX Dragon V2. Photo Credit: Robert Fisher / AmericaSpace

The SpaceX Dragon V2. Photo Credit: Robert Fisher / AmericaSpace

However, with insufficient funding, it remains to be seen how drastically the target for bringing those vehicles online will slip to the right. “Across the United States, aerospace engineers are building a new generation of spacecraft and rockets that will define modern American spaceflight,” Bolden explained in yesterday’s letter. “The safe, reliable and cost-effective solutions being developed here at home will allow for more astronauts to conduct research aboard the space station, enable new jobs and ensure U.S. leadership in spaceflight this century. The fastest path to bringing these new systems online, launching from America and ending our sole reliance on Russia is fully funding NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in FY2016.”

Paying tribute to the sterling efforts being made by Boeing and SpaceX—which both won slices of NASA’s $6.8 billion Commercial Crew transportation Capability (CCtCap) contract last September—Bolden added they were “on track today to provide certified crew transportation services in 2017”. He also stressed that “reductions from the FY2016 request for Commercial Crew, proposed in the House and Senate FY2016 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bills would result in NASA’s inability to fund several planned CCtCap milestones in FY2016 and would likely result in funds running out for both contractors during the spring/summer of 2016”. The inevitable and stark consequence, Bolden pointed out, is that “the existing fixed-price CCtCap contracts may need to be renegotiated, likely resulting in further schedule slippage and increased cost”. Closing his remarks, he described human space exploration as “important activities for this Nation”, whose “broad scope and broad goals” combine to “set our Nation apart from all others”.

 

 

 

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27 comments to Frustrated Bolden Urges Congress to Fund Commercial Crew, Announces $490 Million Contract Modification With Russia

  • Joe

    The situation is more complex than Administrator Bolden would portray it.

    Every year the Administration “fully funds” the “Commercial” Crew program at the expense of SLS/Orion. Every year the Congress (on a bi-partisan basis) puts the money back in SLS/Orion leading to the “under funding” of “Commercial” Crew. This restoration of funds (as Jim Hillhouse noted in the above referenced article) is to bring the funding for SLS/Orion into line with Public Law 111–267 (42 U.S.C. 18323) which is supposed to be the governing law – actually following the law (signed by the current President), what a concept!

    This kabuki dance take place every year in spite of the fact that the amount of money in question is about 0.01% of the yearly Federal Budget.

    If the Administration actually cared whether or not “Commercial” Crew is fully funded they could come up with the extra money. The obvious real objective is to try and cut SLS/Orion funding below the previously agreed to levels in order to damage the programs as much as possible

    Additionally it sets up a false argument of SLS/Orion vs. “Commercial” to divide any politically active space advocates.

    Sadly this kind of political chicanery is working all to well.

    • Gary Church

      “-a false argument of SLS/Orion vs. “Commercial” to divide any politically active space advocates.”

      I am not sure it is accurate to characterize the argument as false. In my view it IS SLS/Orion vs. NewSpace (NewSpace being synonymous with SpaceX of course). The infamously blunt “been there” Moon speech did not come from a vacuum. A Super Heavy Lift Vehicle bypassing the dead end of Low Earth Orbit and going directly to the Moon dumps the entire NewSpace business in the trashcan.

      The space station to nowhere’s days are numbered and pieces of it may fall into the ocean long before anyone expects. Mars is becoming a joke in the same category as space elevators and fusion reactors. When the ISS is over the whole Ayn-Rand-in-Space fantasy of Bigelow hotels filled with happy billionaires and their microgravity playmates will be over.

      What will be left is the SLS and the Moon.

    • Frank

      Thank you Joe. I was beginning to ask myself if I was the only one watching the masquerade.

    • john hare

      Sadly this kind of political chicanery is working all to well.

      Which is one of the reasons I think private space will prevail at some point. 11 years since announcement of Shuttle cancellation and how much longer till Americans can fly American ships again?

      • Joe

        Hi John,

        We have had this discussion before, but since you stated your opinion again; I will state mine again as well.

        I actually share you desire to have space development rescued from this kind of bravo sierra, where we part company is your belief that private investment will someday (completely free of subsidy) make some sort of breakout in this area.

        I simply do not believe that can happen.

        I used to support the “commercial” crew program and look where it is (two providers both pound for pound more expensive than the Shuttle they replaced when they are operating and both currently grounded).

        Now “commercial” crew is facing disaster (according to Bolden) if their government subsides are not increased. This is particularly ironic with SpaceX, with all their bluster about pressing ahead even if the government money was completely cut off.

        Maybe someday if (in a government run development program) there is a successful and growing Lunar Industrial Operation (as an example) that requires high volume transport of personnel and light cargo from Earth to Space (exact orbit is left to the orbital mechanics experts) that will produce a real commercial market that will allow private capital generation at the required levels. Absent that, I do not believe any of that will happen.

  • You’re correct Joe. The administration keeps trying to use Commercial Crew funding to undermine the SLS. This causes anger Congress prompting them to underfund Commercial Crew development.

    Both can be fully funded within an $8 billion a year human spaceflight related budget– if the current administration would just stop playing games with the SLS!

    Marcel

  • Arth

    Seems to me like the Congress can find funds if they weren’t so adversarial against the Administration. And vice-versa. Our Commercial Crew Program or Government Assisted Privatized Spacecraft Program is in it’s “Valley Forge” days. Playing the BEO & LEO programs against each other is only delaying our astronauts the ability & privilege of working in LEO & BEO on U.S. spacecraft. Our national manned space power will be projected in the use of the SLS/Orion system to BEO use. While the CCP/CRS & others will be the work horses of LEO & eventually BEO. It’s time for the Administration & Congress to work together to get our ability to project manned missions from LEO to the moon back, asap!!!

  • Edgar

    Republicans will find a way to destroy human civilization, and they’re doing a good job so far. Now they want to make sure we can’t leave the planet.

    • Joe

      Since Republicans are also Earth dwelling Carbon Based Life Forms, if both your suppositions:

      (1) Republicans will find a way to destroy human civilization
      (2) Now they want to make sure we can’t leave the planet

      were true; they would all have to be suicidal.

      It, therefore, must be assumed that you are some kind of mental health care professional who has done extensive research into this previously undiagnosed area of mental illness.

      Please direct us to these studies, so that (among other things) size/veracity of the sample of Republicans were used (they are a rather amorphous group).

      For instance, what percentages of the following did you use:

      Social Conservatives
      Fiscal Conservatives
      Neo-Cons
      Etc.

    • Frank

      No, for the past 200 years it has been the progressives who have destroyed everything that they’ve touched.

  • Tracy the Troll

    I think you are missing something else…
    The SpaceX CRS 7 failure has been determined to be a faulty strut. But Nasa or the Airforce did not head the investgation rather SpaceX did and then provided their results. They further concluded that no other system or design was in error. The strut itself was so deficient that it failed at 20% spec…The provider of this strut was never named…Because of the funding of a seemingly small amount of money by government standards..500 million…everthing stops on CCR??…We are paying this everyday moving illegal immigrants around the country…And then we have to pay Russia 490 Million for 6 seats….Isn’ this how the MOB works 😉 ?

    • Joe

      “The SpaceX CRS 7 failure has been determined to be a faulty strut. But Nasa or the Airforce did not head the investgation rather SpaceX did and then provided their results. They further concluded that no other system or design was in error. The strut itself was so deficient that it failed at 20% spec…The provider of this strut was never named…”

      So, SpaceX has investigated itself and found itself to be innocent (it is all the unnamed “providers” fault) and you seem to think that is a good thing.

      But when the Orbital Sciences “mishap” happened there was an independent investigation run by NASA and you are not interested in the cause of the disparity in those two approaches. Unfortunately (for SpaceX) others are a little more curious than that:

      http://www.businessinsider.com/r-us-house-panel-asks-nasa-why-it-isnt-probing-spacex-blast-2015-8

      • Tracy the Troll

        Joe,
        There was no strut failure…The CCR 7 was hit with a laser weapon…Nothing will come from the article u referenced..As long as we have a clueless idiot in the WH …We will get pushed around.

        • Joe

          “The CCR 7 was hit with a laser weapon”

          There are two possibilities:

          (1) You are kidding – No comment required.
          (2) You are serious – No polite and useful comment possible.

          Therefore – No Comment.

      • john hare

        Good afternoon Joe,

        “”A spokesman for SpaceX had no immediate comment on the letter, which came a week after 14 U.S. lawmakers told the U.S. Air Force and NASA they had “serious concerns” about the fact that SpaceX is investigating its own accident.

        Many of those lawmakers are from districts representing United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co that is facing competition from SpaceX for military and spy satellite launches.””

        I pasted the two paragraphs above from the article you linked. I think the second one is quite interesting. Whichever side you take, there are lots of tax dollars going out for the wrong reasons. I know we agree on that, though not the vector.

        Tracy,
        You only think it was a laser because the little green men were wearing stealth cloaks and using brown flashlights when they did the job. Those Martians have been causing trouble ever since they sneaked in here from Venus on an asteroid during the Lunar exodus.

        • Joe

          John,

          If you wish to dismiss the actions of any congress member (at least those with whom you disagree) as being motivated by pork for their district that is your privilege.

          However my point was not about the 14 members of Congress you imply are corrupt, but the primary subject of the article. That is the letter by Congressman Lamar Smith (House Committee on Science, Space and Technology Chairman).

          I know the urge will be their to dismiss him as well because he is from Texas and therefore must just be protecting pork for the Johnson Space Center. The problem is he is the representative of TX-21. At its closest border TX-21 is more than 250 miles from JSC. The pork argument will not work.

          Also you are ignoring “why it hasn’t launched an independent review of the explosion on June 28 of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, as it did after the earlier explosion of Orbital ATK Inc’s Antares rocket on Oct. 28.”

          Aren’t you even a little curious about the different treatment of the two CRS contractors?

          • john hare

            Joe,

            “”If you wish to dismiss the actions of any congress member (at least those with whom you disagree) as being motivated by pork for their district that is your privilege.””

            Pork is a factor in all congressional activity, including the ones I agree with. Dismissing pork in the political theater is dismissing reality. I have heard too many discussions between people on “my side” about where the pork should go.

            “”Also you are ignoring “why it hasn’t launched an independent review of the explosion on June 28 of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, as it did after the earlier explosion of Orbital ATK Inc’s Antares rocket on Oct. 28.”

            Aren’t you even a little curious about the different treatment of the two CRS contractors?””

            Two government contractors with different allies and tactics. Pretty cut and dried

            • Joe

              “Pork is a factor in all congressional activity, including the ones I agree with. Dismissing pork in the political theater is dismissing reality. I have heard too many discussions between people on “my side” about where the pork should go.”

              Sincere question. Since there are no NASA facilities in or near Chairman Smith’s district, where is the pork in it for him? The only implied interpretation I know of (since there is no direct benefit for his district – the usual interpretation of pork) is that he is doing something he knows to be dishonorable for campaign contributions or other remuneration. Is that the accusation you are making regarding Smith?

              “Two government contractors with different allies and tactics. Pretty cut and dried”

              Since Congress has nothing to do with the fact that NASA (in the executive branch) is treating the two CRS Contractors differently it can not have anything to do with Congress. Are you saying that the current administration is “playing favorites” for political/monetary reasons”? If that were true I would think that any tax payer should be a least a little interested.

              • John hare

                It is we’ll know that congressmen do horse trading for votes including pork.

                Diferent tactics with NASA doesn’t have to involve congress directly. Finessing the customer is also common with a variety of methods. It is amazing how often people on all sides look for complex answers to simple problems.

                • Joe

                  “It is we’ll know that congressmen do horse trading for votes including pork.”

                  That is, of course, true. It is the origin of the old axiom “anyone who likes sausages or the law should never watch either being made”. That has nothing to do with a congressional inquiry in to why the executive branch is treating two equivalent contractors in equivalent situations differently. In fact, since SpaceX says it intends to fly crew on the Falcon 9; SpaceX should be held to a higher – not lower – standard.

                  “Diferent tactics with NASA doesn’t have to involve congress directly. Finessing the customer is also common with a variety of methods. It is amazing how often people on all sides look for complex answers to simple problems.”

                  Sorry John, I honestly mean no personal offense, but that is the classic definition of word salad. Since I have no idea what it means, there is no way to respond to it.

                  There are two possibilities:

                  (1) The Administration has a reason for the disparate treatment and you know what it is. If so, please enlighten the uninformed. If you do not know why do object to Congress asking?

                  (2) You believe the Administration is playing political games. If so, why do disparage the appropriate congressional committees for investigating? Isn’t that the definition of congressional oversight?

                  • John hare

                    Orbital got NASA involved for CYA. Simple.

                    • Joe

                      “Orbital got NASA involved for CYA. Simple.”

                      From the linked article:

                      “Both launches were paid for by NASA under separate contracts worth well more than $1 billion each, and destroyed unmanned rockets carrying cargo to the International Space Station.
                      The accidents have raised questions about the U.S. government’s increasing reliance on commercial launch contracts and its oversight of accident investigations.

                      The two companies are leading their own investigations, subject to oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration, which licensed the launches.”

                      “In the letter, Smith said both NASA’s $1.6 billion contract with privately held SpaceX, and its $1.8 billion contract with Orbital granted the agency the right to investigate mishaps which involve NASA personnel or resources.

                      Smith questioned why NASA created its own independent review team to look into the Orbital crash and benefit from any lessons learned, but only asked for a NASA representative to be included in the SpaceX probe.”

                      So it is not so “simple”. The plain and simple fact is that Orbital did not get NASA involved, NASA chose not to get involved in one case and to get involved in the other.

                      This is at the point where it is going to turn into one of those name calling back and fourths. I am therefore going to leave the conversation as there is nothing more useful to say on the subject.

        • Tracy the Troll

          Interesting analysis John….I had not thought of the extraterrestial angle.
          And Joe I think John is right on the Pork issue…Now if you will excuse me I was just notified That Season 8 of DOCTOR WHO is avaialable on Netflix…

  • John hare

    Net result is that money goes to Russia instead of the US.

  • James

    I’m very glad Joe wrote, “The obvious real objective is to try and cut SLS/Orion funding below the previously agreed to levels in order to damage the programs as much as possible

    Additionally it sets up a false argument of SLS/Orion vs. “Commercial” to divide any politically active space advocates.”

    Clearly Joe hit the nail on the head.

    I am looking forward to the SLS launching International Orion missions to do ISRU on the Moon.

    Who is going to build the Lander? That is what I want to know.

    And if we really care about spaceflight safety, it would be wise to see an Orion test mission to the International Space Station ASAP.

  • […] doubt, as NASA struggles to secure full Congressional funding for the Commercial Crew Program and the frustration of Administrator Charlie Bolden was barely veiled in a 5 August 2015 letter to the leadership of the committees responsible for the space agency’s […]