NASA's Space Taxi Needs a SpaceX Backup
Boeing has won the multibillion-dollar NASA contract to build space taxis to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, which will undoubtedly disappoint many proponents of private spaceflight. The well-connected aerospace giant hardly counts as a nimble tech startup -- unlike runner-up Elon Musk's SpaceX. Still, NASA has wisely chosen to continue funding SpaceX too, albeit at a lower level than Boeing. The real worry is whether Congress will continue to give the space agency the resources needed to keep both projects going successfully.
NASA's decision to fund a competition -- known as Commercial Crew -- to develop rockets for manned space flights has been one of the agency's biggest successes in decades. Just three years ago, upon the retirement of the Space Shuttle, NASA didn't have any way to transport U.S. astronauts other than by hitching expensive rides on Russian spacecraft. Today the agency was able to choose between three viable spacecraft designs, all of which will be ready to fly in 2017, according to their manufacturers. The three were developed for less than $2 billion cumulatively.
It's been a welcome change from NASA's history of program delays, cost-overruns, all-too-cozy contractor relationships and missions driven by patronage. Take the much-delayed, $9 billion program to build the Space Launch System, designed to be the largest rocket ever to fly, which began development in the mid-2000s. It has no mission (yet), and probably won't launch until 2018. Yet the program continues to receive congressional dollars, largely because it creates a lot of jobs in Senator Richard Shelby's Alabama.
From the start, the Commercial Crew project has faced considerable congressional opposition, especially from legislators whose states and districts are home to facilities belonging to NASA and its traditional contractors. Every year since the Commercial Crew competition was launched in 2009, Congress has appropriated less money for the program than NASA has requested.
This has had several negative effects, including reducing the number of companies that NASA could subsidize in the competition. Most seriously, the lack of funding has delayed the first Commercial Crew launch from 2015 to 2017, even as relations with Vladimir Putin's Russia continue to deteriorate.
No doubt, Boeing's longstanding ties in Congress didn't hurt its bid; presumably they also reduce the chances of a cutoff in funding. The danger is that congressional opponents of the whole Commercial Crew idea now decide that the program has fulfilled its goal, and therefore refuse to appropriate continued funding for SpaceX. This would be short-sighted on two levels. First, spaceflight is difficult, and though Boeing certainly is capable, there's always the possibility that its design will fail. A backup rocket, especially one that has tested as well as SpaceX's has, is a necessity.
Second, the Commercial Crew program has always been about fostering a private U.S. space sector, not just building a single rocket. SpaceX can continue its satellite-launch business without NASA's help. But if U.S. policymakers want to see the company develop beyond flying cargo into space (where it already outcompetes foreign space agencies), they need to give NASA the money nurture a true, homegrown success story.
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