Might NASA be Forced to Kill the Commercial Space Race?

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Commercial space competition may be over before it’s even really begun.

Last week, Congress approved a spending bill that demands NASA immediately choose one company for its Commercial Crew Program, and this week they will be voting on it. Killing the private competition is meant to save money and speed up development, but it may cause problems for NASA’s already stretched budget.

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There are a lot of interesting and promising commercial programs under development right now. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin project is working on a launch vehicle, Sierra Nevada is working on the Dream Chaser orbital vehicle, ATK just announced its intention to add a spacecraft to its Liberty rocket, SpaceX has its Falcon 9 and Dragon, and Orbital Sciences has its Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft.

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are the front runners, both planning cargo flights to the ISS this year to demonstrate their capabilities. SpaceX is scheduled to launch this coming Saturday. But these missions are unmanned cargo flights; manned mission aren’t expected until 2017. So why throttle the competition before NASA has a viable commercial system in place?

The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program was started in 2006 with the goal of easing the transition out of the shuttle era by having private companies take over the low-Earth orbit cargo launches allowing NASA to focus on its loftier goals of deep space manned missions on Saturn V-type powerful rockets. There’s no money for the COTS program in NASA’s 2013 budget.

The Commercial Crew Program, however, is separate and distinct from COTS and President Obama requested $830 million for Commercial Crew in 2013 (although the House countered with $500 million). The ultimate aim for the program is to end NASA’s dependence on Russia for manned launches to the space station.

The bill, if passed, would streamline the commercial launch effort by giving one company more money to develop its crewed system faster.

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The problem with the short answer is that it’s short sighted. The layered approach with multiple companies vying for the contract to build a new manned space transportation system is exactly what NASA needs right now. The competition has yielded creativity and innovation. The rockets and spacecraft these companies have come up with has cost NASA millions instead of billions since the agency isn’t alone in footing the bill, and there are clearly viable systems on the horizon.

If the competition goes away, the need to come up with the most reliable, cost-effective, and flexible system will go with it. “It is unfortunate that Congress would direct an agency to pick a company before the magic of the marketplace had a chance to work,” said Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute at the University of Central Florida.

We’ve seen this before. In the early days of the shuttle program, NASA was directed to pick the contractor that promised the lowest overall cost without seeing a demonstration of abilities first.

During the Space Race NASA chose contractors based on designs and previous experience rather than demonstration. In both cases the program costs were huge and staying on schedule was an ongoing battle. The only difference with Apollo-era programs was that money was no object.

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“Ending competition by down-selecting to a sole commercial space company could double the cost of developing a privately built human spaceflight system and it will leave us in the same position we find ourselves today — having only one option for getting our astronauts to the space station,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden told an FAA commercial space advisory committee last week.

We should know this week what changes we’ll see in the commercial space venture.

Image: The SpaceX Falcon 9 launches — a thing of the past? Credit: SpaceX

(Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that commercial crew projects fall under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). This is not correct, they are two independent programs.)