Wolf’s “Reconfigured” Commercial Crew: Less Money, Less Competition, More Regulation

Rep. Frank Wolf

By Douglas Messier
Parabolic Arc Managing Editor

We now know what the House has in mind for NASA’s “reconfigured” commercial crew program. I’ll let Rep. Frank Wolf, chairman of the House’s Science subcommittee, explain in his own inimitable way:

Commercial Crew development is funded at $500 million, consistent with the current authorization and the report accompanying the House Budget Resolution.  In light of limited budgets and the need to find the fastest, safest and most cost effective means of achieving a U.S. capability for access to the International Space Station, the bill directs NASA to winnow the commercial partners and advance the schedule for moving to traditional government procurement methods.

So, the House’s “fastest, safest and most cost effective” approach can be summed up as follows:

  • Slash $350 million from the President’s request so NASA doesn’t have enough money to do the program the way it wants
  • Use the lack of funds to force NASA to down select earlier than it wants, thus limiting competition that will keep prices down
  • Require NASA to use traditional government procurement methods as soon as possible, which will likely raise costs even further.

I think I get where Wolf is coming from here. Slashing the funds is a sign that you’re being “cost effective” with the people’s money and not wasting it on unnecessary competition. (And it frees up money for really cost effective projects the Space Launch System.) If the space agency continues to run the program as planned, the schedule will slip ever further to the right, which would be NASA’s fault for not using the “fastest” approach. And “safest” is using the government’s traditional procurement methods because…we’re the Congress and that’s how we roll.

Of course, eliminating competition too early and moving too quickly to traditional acquisition methods could well harm the “cost effective” part of the plan. Whatever Congress saves through its annual butchering of the commercial crew budget and its interference in the program might well get added to the costs later on.

Not that this ever seems to bother anyone in Congress. Sen. Barbara Mikulski recently questioned whether we should be spending money on commercial crew given how badly the schedule had slipped even though Congress’s budget cuts had caused the delay and left us paying ever more to the Russians for crew transport. Alas, it is useless to point out these contradictions to our elected officials for Capitol Hill is truly an irony-free zone.