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Congress’ Chronic Under Funding of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
September 2, 2016
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Excerpted from, “NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: Update on Development and Certification Efforts,” NASA Office of Inspector General, Report No. IG-16-028, September 1, 2016

Past Funding Shortfalls Have Delayed NASA’s Commercial Crew Plans

As discussed in our previous report, for several years during its early development, the Commercial Crew Program received significantly less funding than requested.14 As shown in Table 2, to date the cumulative difference between the President’s budget requests for the Program and actual appropriations is approximately $1.1 billion. However, under the current CCtCap phase of the Program, Boeing and SpaceX are operating under firm-fixed price contracts, which provide a more stable cost estimate for the remaining work needed to certify the commercial crew vehicles. Further, in December 2015 – for the first time in 6 years – NASA received the full amount the President requested for the Program: $1.2 billion for FY 2016. Although not the only factor, the shortfall contributed to slippage in the Program’s schedule. NASA officials said while full funding in FY 2016 will help reduce risks related to budget uncertainty, it will do little to address technical Program risks.

commercial_crew_funding_0916Note: The amount of funding received in prior years is in gray. Delta amounts are the differences between actual received amounts (final appropriations) versus the President’s budget request, where applicable. Numbers in parenthesis are negative.

In its 2015 Annual Report, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) commented on the impact of Program funding shortages, stating:

The [Program] was underfunded during the critical early years of development. Specifically, the Program received only 57 percent of the requested funding in fiscal year (FY) 2011 through FY 2013. This underfunding in the critical early system design years resulted in a design at Critical Design Review that was not as mature as it might have been. This has also added to the program management and safety challenges. Going forward, there is high risk that the Program may not receive sufficient funding to execute the planned program. Careful attention and close cooperation among NASA, the White House, and the Congress is necessary to deliver safe and effective transportation to low Earth orbit.15

In addition, ASAP stated that even though both Boeing and SpaceX reported to be on track for crewed launches to the ISS in December 2017, significant challenges remained and there was a high likelihood of delays to the first test flights. ASAP also noted that hazard reporting was behind and showed a lack of design maturity at Critical Design Review, which meant the design process was going forward without the benefit of completed hazard analyses.

The first certified flight carrying NASA astronauts to the ISS is unlikely to occur until late 2018 – more than 3 years after NASA’s original 2015 goal. While past funding shortfalls have contributed to the delay, technical challenges are now driving schedule slippages. Until at least one of the commercial contractors are certified, NASA will continue to pay Russia more than $80 million a seat to transport astronauts to the Station on Russian vehicles.

14 NASA Office of Inspector General, “NASA’s Management of the Commercial Crew Program,” (IG-14-001, November 13, 2013).

15 ASAP, Annual Report for 2015, January 13, 2016.


11 responses to “Congress’ Chronic Under Funding of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program”

  1. Richard Malcolm says:

    Helpful piece, and a helpful chart, Doug,

    Yesterday’s accident isn’t implicated in this underfunding, but given that further delays are not likely in what is already a much delayed Commercial Crew program, it’s helpful to understand how we got where we are now. The challenges now are mostly technical, but with full funding from the start, they would have been confronted sooner, too.

    • windbourne says:

      Well, the question is, are the human rated vehicles going to be ready on time? That remains iffy.
      As to F9, that remains a separate issue.

      • JamesG says:

        Probably not. And the F9’s woes are related because it doesn’t matter how good the Dragon is if its launcher isn’t reliable enough to get it to space.

        • windbourne says:

          You are right about needing the launcher, BUT, the Dragon could be human rated on time, and then flown on other launch systems, OR, the F9 is simply readied.

          Personally, I am hoping that NASA will require that there be 2 different launch systems PER capsule. Again, we need to make certain that we never lose human launch again.

          We should also encourage ESA to do same.

  2. savuporo says:

    It isn’t Congress that is blowing up launch pads across the country. That is entirely an achievement of the industry itself.

    • mlc449 says:

      Hyperbole much. The private spaceflight industry has had one pad accident thus far, and thankfully no deaths. For an industry that is still quite young and learning this is something to take comfort in. Go look at the early history of the US space program for some examples of epic pad failures. And not forgetting accidents overseas, most notoriously the Baikonur disaster of 1960 that saw dozens of top Soviet rocket scientists and engineers incinerated by an exploding R-16. You’re going to have to expect some accidents along the way in the course of commercializing space.

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