Musk Applauds Senate’s Approval of $500 Million for Commercial Crew

SpacX Founder Elon Musk

Elon Musk, SpaceX CEO and Chief Technology Officer, issued the following statement:

“The United States needs alternatives for carrying American astronauts, and we need them as soon as possible,” said SpaceX CEO and chief rocket designer Elon Musk. “The investments made by this legislation will accelerate efforts to return America to launching astronauts and reduce our dependency on Russia. With the failure of the Soyuz booster last month, this effort is more important than ever.

“NASA’s Commercial Crew Development Program is the most fiscally responsible means to rapidly advance human spaceflight. It has protected taxpayer dollars with fixed-price, pay-for-performance contracts. It fosters competition that forces companies to compete on reliability, capability and cost. And it leverages private investment – making taxpayer dollars go further.

“SpaceX applauds Chairwoman Mikulski, Ranking Member Hutchison and the Members of the Subcommittee for recognizing the value of the program. With the support of Congress, American companies will soon be able to end the flow of tax dollars to Russia and instead invest in high-tech American jobs.”

Editor’s Note: The Senate’s bill is $350 million less than the $850 million requested by the Obama Administration. It is higher than the House spending bill, which leaves spending flat at $312 million. Those numbers will have to be reconciled in conference committee, but it’s unlikely the CCDev budget will rise above a half billion dollars next year.

Musk’s view appears to be that this is sufficient, although other NewSpace supporters are likely to vehemently disagree.  I’m disappointed that after forcing NASA to build a massive heavy lift vehicle that the Senate couldn’t find extra money to fund CCDev at or at least near what the space agency says it needs. Especially after the recent Soyuz launch exposed the vulnerability of relying on a single crew launch system. That would have been a good bargain, but it was not to be.

It’s a bit too early to fully evaluate the impact of the Senate’s decision. Officials from CCDev companies have said that any cuts in the proposed CCDev budgets could lengthen development times and raise overall costs down the road. That could endanger efforts to get commercial crew up and running by the middle of the decade.

Boeing, for example, is projecting the first test flight of its CST-100 vehicle in 2015, with an operational flight in 2016.  Other companies are projecting flights earlier, contingent upon sufficient funding. Any delays mean paying the Russians some $63 million per seat (or more) to send our astronauts to the International Space Station. And it leaves ISS dependent solely upon the Soyuz.

The other possible impact is that NASA funds fewer systems than it might otherwise support with a larger budget. NASA is looking for at least two systems to fund to completion to give it options.  My guess is the space agency will stick with at least two but might not be able to fund three.

One thing to keep in mind: it’s not unusual to ask for a larger budget and expect Congress to provide less, especially in the current fiscal climate.  So, NASA was probably expecting to run the program on less money, although perhaps not this much less.