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NASA: Pay the Americans now ... or pay the Russians later

Bill Ingalls / NASA file

NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, seen here during a February news conference with Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser spaceship, says providing funds for U.S. spaceship developers now will reduce payments to the Russians later.

If NASA can't provide as much support for U.S. spaceship-builders as it's hoping for, it'll have to keep paying the Russians $450 million for every year of delay, the space agency's No. 2 official said today.

NASA's deputy administrator, Lori Garver, laid out that "pay now or pay later" message at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, N.M.

With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, NASA has to rely on the Russians to get U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station, at a cost due to escalate to $63 million per seat in 2015. By around that time, NASA is hoping that U.S.-made commercial spaceships will take on that role. The would-be providers — including Blue Origin, the Boeing Co., SpaceX and Sierra Nevada Corp. — say that they can match the Russians' price tag, but that they need assistance for developing the new craft.


Toward that end, NASA has paid out or set aside a total of $388 million to support the development of those private-sector spaceships. The agency is providing another $800 million for unmanned, cargo-carrying spacecraft, to be provided by
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. All these figures pale in comparison with the estimated $35 billion expected to be spent over the next decade on a heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule designed for trips beyond Earth orbit.

How much for the next phase?
Now NASA is getting ready for the next phase of the commercial crew vehicle development effort, and asking for $850 million to fund it. Congress is setting aside significantly less: $312 million in the House version, $500 million in the Senate version. During today's talk, Garver used an insurance salesman's strategy to argue for a higher figure.

If the full $850 million is provided, Garver said, "by 2016, certainly we will be able to end outsourcing of this capability from the Russians. If we don’t get full funding in 2012, this is at risk."

Each year of delay means that NASA will have to pay another $450 million to the Russians, she said. The implication was that paying U.S. companies an extra $350 million now (over the Senate's allotment) would be better than paying the Russians an extra $450 million in 2016. NASA would probably still be spending that $450 million per year in 2016 and beyond, but it would be going to U.S. companies rather than the Russian space effort.

Even if NASA gets the $850 million in 2012, that wouldn't be the end of the story. NASA projects that the cost of crew vehicle development will go up, going forward. "We have an analysis that says we believe we would require $6 billion over five years," Garver said. In the past, members of Congress have been resistant to approving that much money for commercial spaceship-builders.

After her talk, Garver told me that the negotiations over funding the next phase of its commercialization initiative would continue. The House Science, Space and Technology Committee has scheduled a hearing on the subject next Wednesday.

NASA has already issued a draft request for proposals for this phase, known as CCDev 3 (that is, the third phase of the Commercial Crew Development program). However, the final request — and the pot of money that will be available — would have to be specified in legislation that has yet to be passed. If there's no resolution, NASA spending would most likely be frozen at current levels, and CCDev 3 could languish in legislative limbo.

During this week's conference, there were repeated calls for Congress to provide full funding for CCDev 3 — from Bigelow Aerospace's billionaire founder, Robert Bigelow; from former shuttle program director Wayne Hale; and from George Nield, the Federal Aviation Administration's associate administrator for commercial spaceflight.

Nield said he worried that reduced funding levels for CCDev would send the message that the United States was not serious about developing near-term replacements for the space shuttle. "I'd love to see them get what they're asking for," he told me.

'Mammals' vs. 'dinosaurs'
During her talk, Garver played to the home crowd by touting entrepreneurs as "small mammals" pitted against the "dinosaurs" and "vested interests" of the space industry. But during our conversation afterward, she refrained from saying specifically which vested interests she had in mind.

I asked her whether some of the long-established dinosaurs of the space program were turning into entrepreneurial mammals. "Lots of 'em, yes," she replied, "and we welcome it."

Garver's talk at the annual ISPCS conference also featured a "top-ten list of ways we'll know we've succeeded." To wit:

10. Instead of "occupying Wall Street," people will be occupying multiple space stations.

9. U.S. astronauts will be leading an international expedition to a near-Earth asteroid.

8. NASA's James Webb Space Telescope will detect an extrasolar planet with a blue ocean.

7. It'll take a half-day to get to the ISPCS conference from anywhere in the world, thanks to point-to-point suborbital space travel.

6. The conference will outgrow its current venue in Las Cruces, and be conducted instead at New Mexico's Spaceport America facility, near "the Whitesides, a new five-star hotel." (That's a reference to George Whitesides, who was once chief of staff for NASA's administrator and is currently Virgin Galactic's chief executive officer.)

5. Smartphone users will get real-time readings on space weather, thanks to mobile apps.

4. Ninety percent of hazardous near-Earth asteroids will be identified and tracked.

3. U.S. private ventures will be taking advantage of lunar resources.

2. NASA will be making further advances in technology, research and innovation.

1. The president of the United States will be taking Garver's place as keynote speaker, "and she will also be wearing fabulous boots."

OK, so maybe some of those points aren't serious (though I'm totally looking forward to those fabulous boots). What would you put on a top-ten list of future space achievements? Feel free to leave your suggestions as comments below.

Update for 3:45 p.m. ET: During her talk, Garver referred to a 1961 essay by GE Chairman Ralph Cordiner, titled "Competitive Private Enterprise in Space." Even though it was written 50 years ago, the essay is prescient is sketching out the challenges and benefits of a more entrepreneurial space effort. Garver referred specifically to this passage: "A certain percentage — perhaps as much as 5 percent — of the technical work of the space program is best done in government laboratories." It's recommended reading for anyone interested in the commercial space frontier.

More about the commercial space frontier:


Stay tuned for further reports about the space frontier from the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight. We'll also be featuring some of the leaders of the private-sector space effort, including Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Mark Sirangelo, SpaceX's Elon Musk and Virgin Galactic's Richard Branson, in an upcoming installment of our "Future of Technology" series.

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