Obama is Right, and I Think the Republican’s Wrong

I am not kidding. While I disagree with many — nearly all, it seems — of Obama’s policy objectives, I have no hesitation to commend him when he does something right. In this instance, it is a Republican attempting to undo something that Obama has pushed, and I object to that intervention.

I praised President Obama before on this same topic.

I think that President Obama’s plans with regard to NASA are generally good. I have long been a proponent of allowing private enterprise to supply the more mundane aspects of space operations, specifically the supply vessels and running the basics of the International Space Station. NASA’s focus should be on exploration, in areas that cannot yet show a profit.

The new plan does this, in essence. NASA is instructed to farm out the supply missions, and there are a number of NewSpace companies that now have or will have the ability to deliver the goods.

As we have seen last week, a NewSpace company (specifically Elon Musk’s SpaceX) has succeeded in delivering the goods. And more are working on various commercial approaches to fill NASA’s gaps in cost-effective ways that are just foreign to government bureaucracy. To his credit, Obama gave that push. One can argue that it was accidental, but the man who could not pronounce “Orion” is still getting the space effort right. I commend him.

But I’m concerned about the statement from Republican Frank Wolf of Virginia, who heads up the relevant appropriations committee. He seems to have bowed to NASA pressure to reduce the support of commercial space developers. An excerpt from the announcement:

As part of this understanding, NASA and the committee have affirmed that the primary objective of the commercial crew program is achieving the fastest, safest and most cost-effective means of domestic access to the ISS, not the creation of a commercial crew industry.

Additionally, NASA has stated that it will reduce the number of awards anticipated to be made this summer from the 4 awards made under commercial crew development round 2 to not more than 2.5 (two full and one partial) CCiCAP awards. This downselect will reduce taxpayer exposure by concentrating funds on those participants who are most likely to be chosen to eventually provide service to ISS.

Can it be that a private “commercial crew industry” (which NASA has long opposed) is seen by a Republican as a problem? NASA has an explicit mandate, from the Reagan administration and still in force, to “seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space” according to this article.

Perhaps I am reading Wolf’s comments incorrectly. One insider writes in his defense:

As someone from from the DC arm – our current read is that this good.

1. It, at a minimum, preserves the option for using Space Act Agreements all the way through Demo flights. It may even ensure that NASA will use SAAs to go through to Demo flights. This is a huge victory.

A little explainer:
Back when NASA announced its new path forward for CCiCap (this was in February), it offerred two paths forward. One was called DTEC, and basically after completing the final design phase of the program, NASA would move everything to FAR during construction and flight testing. The other idea was to have an optional phase for CCiCap, where there would be construction and flight testing, which would be combined with a separate certification program, that would be run concurrently with the optional phase of CCiCap. Then, regardless which path was taken, would be a formal competition for actually bringing astronauts to ISS. The later, while not exactly, is very close to how COTS works.

2. It ensures more than a single winner for CCiCap (the next round of Commercial Crew). Wolf wanted to downselect to a single provider (or at most, a leader and follower). While I am not thrilled at a forced downselect of at most 2.5, given the above fact, and given that there will be AT LEAST 2 winners, I can live with 2.5. (and the other part of this is that, given the money that is being talked about, talk of more than 3 awards was probably dubious at best).

3. It has, to a degree, enshrined the above facts into NASA’s plan.

There may be more that hasn’t been teased out yet, but our read from DC is that this is a very good resolution, compared to what was proposed in the original Appropriations report language.

We shall see — but I am suspicious as to who will be “chosen to eventually provide service to the ISS.”

===|==============/ Keith DeHavelle

  • I for one was very excited to see the success of Space X the last few weeks. I’m reminded of the fact that Dr. Pournelle has repeatedly stated that NASA actively has blocked the expansion of space to all but the government elite. With the president defunding sections of NASA we finally are getting to see the private sector moving in.

    I completely understand your suspicians that NASA will block and control access in one way or another, but I do have hope that we will see a few more companies build launchers, an oligopoly on space travel would be so much better than a duopoly…

    On the partisan note, I’m sick of politician’s reverting to not invented here syndrom. My own senator refuses to ratify a federal judge for Utah because Obama nominated her, even though he says she will do a wonderful job. That to me says that while I like his ideology, I’m not sure I want to keep electing him (though I’d be happy if the Senators were appointed by the states again).

    Sorry I’ve been out of touch for a while, work is frantic. All the best.