Ever since the shuttle program ended, NASA has been paying Russia to ferry U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station. But the price-per-seat aboard Russia’s spacecraft has gotten ridiculous. The solution is clear and cost-effective: The US needs its own space taxis. So why won’t Congress pay for it?
When the Space Shuttles retired, NASA planned on replacing their functionality by subsidizing the development of private spacecraft, by companies like SpaceX and Boeing, with its Commercial Crew Program and Commercial Resupply Services contracts. These programs would help pay for spacecraft that would carry crew and cargo to the International Space Station, respectively.
So far, The Commercial Resupply Service has worked out great. Yes, occasionally an explosion destroys a payload, but that’s to be expected; spaceflight is hard and everyone’s rocket veers off-course sometimes. But for the most part, the astronauts have been kept well-supplied with coffee and experiments.
But NASA is having a much harder time getting the Commercial Crew Program off the ground. The Commercial Crew Program is an incremental development program where private companies compete to meet specific development milestones in constructing spacecraft to fulfill NASA’s human spaceflight needs. The program is down to just two vehicles—both the Boeing Corporation’s CST-100 and the SpaceX Crew Dragon are contracted to finish certification and start carrying astronauts to the International Space Station. Both vehicles are performing well, and each has passed qualification tests. Meanwhile, the International Space Station is being modified so that the space taxis will be able to dock in low-Earth orbit. Conceptually, the Commercial Crew Program looks a lot like the Commercial Resupply program. So what’s the holdup?
Engine testing for the CST-100. Image credit: Boeing Corporation
When the Commercial Crew Program first showed up as a line item in the 2011 budget, NASA planned on spending $6-billion over five years to develop a pair of space taxis and send their first crew to the ISS in 2015. The private companies are doing great hitting every milestone on their timelines. But the the slated date for a crewed voyage—currently scheduled for no earlier than November 2017—keeps getting delayed.
Not-so-coincidentally, every year NASA’s budget for the Commercial Crew Program has been smaller than the requested levels. The 2012 request of $850-million was funded to just $397-million; the 2013 budget request of $830-million was funded to only $520 million. The pattern follows year after year, delaying the commercial crew program and requiring yet more rented seats on the Roscosmos Soyuz spacecraft. In a 2013 audit of the Commercial Crew Program, the Office of the Inspector General wrote:
The combination of a future flat-funding profile and lower-than-expected levels of funding over the past 3 years may delay the first crewed launch beyond 2017 and closer to 2020, the current expected end of the operational life of the ISS.
Pad abort test for the Crew Dragon. Image credit: SpaceX
NASA’s budget for the Commercial Crew Program keeps getting raided to pay for rental seats on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft, the only current option for sending astronauts into space. We’re shelling out so much in renting Soyuz seats that we’re delaying development of Boeing’s CST-100 and SpaceX’s crew Dragon spacecraft. In doing so, we maintain an American presence on the space station while denying building capacity to maintain that presence in the future. It’s a classic case of short-term penny-pinching resulting in long-term cost.
NASA is unamused by this state of affairs. NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote an open letter to Congress on August 5, 2015, scolding them over how their lack of vision is crippling the future of human spaceflight in America. The letter starts:
Across the United States, aerospace engineers are building a new generation of spacecraft and rockets that will define modern American spaceflight. 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 [fiscal year] 2016.
The funding request of $1,243.8 million ($1.2 billion) is required to keep up with the contract terms, yet the Senate is currently proposing just $900-million ($0.9 billion), and the House of Representatives isn’t feeling that much more generous. Boeing and SpaceX are both racing along hitting their certification goals, but will run up short if NASA doesn’t have the money to keep paying out at the development milestones. If NASA can’t pay up, they’ll need to renegotiate the contracts and likely end up spending more money in the long run than it would cost to meet the budget request now.
Hitching a ride on the Russian Soyuz is getting ever more expensive. Image credit: NASA
Meanwhile, demand for seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft—the only human transport currently making trips to the International Space Station—has driven price of admittance to astronomical levels. In 2010, the price was $25-million per seat. The price jumped to $43-million in the last half of 2011, $60-million in 2016, and was a staggering $76.3-million per seat for the contract just signed to carry astronauts into orbit through 2017. Between 2012 and 2017, NASA will pay Roscosmos $2.1-billion to ferry astronauts to the space station on Soyuz. The latest contract will cost $458-million for six seats in 2017—more than enough to cover the gap between NASA’s budget request and Congress’s counter-proposal.
In sharp contrast to that $76-million-per-seat pricetag for Soyuz, NASA will only need to pay $58-million per seat to ship astronauts off-planet with the Crew Dragon or the CST-100. At seven astronauts per vehicle, that’s a savings of $126-million for every fully-loaded flight, with up to six flights per carrier before the fixed-price contract expires. If NASA receives its full request and can hold up their end of the contract without getting stuck in an unfavorable renegotiation, switching from Soyuz to the Commercial Crew Program taxis will immediately and dramatically increase the number of astronauts we can send to space within the limited space station crew transportation budget. And if we don’t, a righteously angry Bolden points out we’re going to keep throwing money away:
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.
Interior of the Crew Dragon. Image credit: SpaceX
It’s ridiculous. The Commercial Cargo program is working great, and the industry partners for the Commercial Crew program are ready and roaring to go if we just keep funding them. The cost-saving of functional space taxis is nearly immediate: just three fully-loaded flights would save more than Congress is currently quibbling at allocating for the upcoming budget year. With the constant short-changing of the Commercial Crew Program, the only logical conclusion is that Congress doesn’t really want an American-developed, -constructed, and -operated space taxi, but a second-hand Russian Soyuz.
If we just fully fund the Commercial Crew Program for one year, we’ll be done and have a pair of space taxis to transport astronauts to the International Space Station. Suck it up and pay out, Congress: we’ve waited for the CST-100 and the Crew Dragon for too long already.
Boeing Corporation’s Crew Space Transportation System (CST) 100 vehicle. Image credit: Boeing Corporation
[Annual NASA Budget Proposals; NASA’s Management of the Commercial Crew Program; Extending the Operational Life of the International Space Station Until 2024; NASA Notifies Congress about Space Station Contract Modification with Russia; NASA Administrator Statement on Senate Appropriations Subcommittee Vote on Commercial Crew Budget]