“This deal is looking worse and worse all time.” Those words were famously spoken by Lando Calrissian in Star Wars Episode V (The Empire Strikes Back), but they could also be applied to NASA’s Commercial Crew program.
NASA sold the Commercial Crew program to Congress with the promise that the expenditure would end US dependence on the Russian Soyuz capsule and launcher. But according to NASA’s deputy space-station program manager Dan Hartman, that won’t happen. This week, Hartman told the NASA Advisory Council that some US astronauts will continue to ride on Soyuz vehicles as long as ISS is operational.
Soyuz serves as both transportation system and “lifeboat” for ISS astronauts, and NASA expects any new crew vehicle will do the same. NASA wants some astronauts to continue to ride on Soyuz and some Russian cosmonauts to ride on US vehicles, so it can continue to operate the station with a mixed crew even if one vehicle has to depart due to an emergency. “It doesn’t make much sense for three Russians to leave and expect the four Americans onboard to operate the Russian segment and vice versa,” Hartman said.
This revelation represents just the latest in a long string of broken promises from the Commercial Crew program.
The “commercial” aspects of the program become smaller and smaller all the time, as NASA imposes Federal Acquisition Regulations, human-rating standards, and other new requirements. In January of 2014, SpaceX program manager and former NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman told a Houston audience that there was no longer “any significant difference” between the final phase of NASA’s Commercial Crew program and traditional government contracting.
To add injury to insult, NASA plans to “down-select” (fire) at least one of the three Commercial Crew contractors later this year. Two other companies were “down-selected” in 2012. At one time, it was expected that as many as five companies would be allowed to compete for NASA’s crew-transportation business. Now, NASA expects to narrow the field to two, or perhaps only one, depending on how much money it receives from Congress.
At one time, Commercial Crew supporters expected the new vehicles would be flown by commercial space pilots and carry private spaceflight participants as well as NASA astronauts. But faced with NASA requirements, contractors elected to go to a “self-drive rental-car model” rather than a “taxi model.” When crewed Dragons fly to the International Space Station, Reisman says, “All the seats will be filled with NASA bodies.”
Or possibly, as it now appears, Russian bodies.
So ends the dream of many “NewSpace” activists who predicted that Commercial Crew would transform ISS from a government research outpost into a thriving commercial space station, which they called “Alphatown.”
Some NASA employees are disappointed as well. In the early days of the Commercial Crew and Cargo programs, managers hoped that NASA’s money would spawn a new generation of fully reusable rockets. But faced with limited funding from Congress, and the very limited flight rate NASA was asking for, contractors went for much more conservative solutions.
There is one important difference between the “New Space” movement and Lando Calrissian. When Lando recognized the direction in which things were headed, he was willing to walk away from his deal with the Empire. Not so “New Space.” When the Commercial Crew and Cargo programs fail to meet their prior expectations, New Space leaders do not walk away or even protest. They simply reset their expectations. The worse the deal gets, the more loudly New Space leaders praise it.
NASA may not have it so easy this time, however. It’s not merely the “New Space” movement that’s upset about US astronauts flying on Russian rockets. It’s Congress, which has real power. Congress funded Commercial Crew and Cargo under the assumption that they would end US dependence on Russian rockets, not merely reduce it, and may not be happy to hear that’s not happening.