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”.
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.
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.
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”.