Given election-year budget politics on Capitol Hill, and the possibility of a spending sequestration early next year that the White House budget office says would chop almost $1.7 billion from NASA's budget, many lawmakers doubt that schedule can be met.
“I think we need NASA to give us a cost and schedule estimate that is based on more realistic budgetary assumptions, so we can see what is most likely to actually happen, something we require for all of NASA's other major programs,” says Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.).
Gerstenmaier testified that Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX collectively are covering only 10-20% of the development costs of their vehicles with internal funds. Even at that surprisingly low level of private investment, given past administration claims about the prospects for a private space economy, there is no guarantee that the commercial crew vehicles will be cheaper than the Soyuz seats NASA is using today.
In its planning for the commercial crew vehicles, NASA is budgeting the roughly $62 million a seat it pays Russia for Soyuz transportation and training, Gerstenmaier says. Given the pace of commercial crew development, the agency will need to negotiate at least one more purchase of Soyuz seats to cover the period between summer 2016 and the shift to U.S. commercial crew vehicles. That, in turn, will require an extension of the congressional waiver in missile-proliferation law that allows NASA to buy space hardware from Russia to support ISS operations. And Soyuz lead-time considerations mean negotiations with Russia must start next year if the vehicles are to be ready when the current contract expires.
“We're going to take care of this next six-month period, and then figure out what to do next,” says Gerstenmaier. “Because then we've got to figure out a better strategy of how we phase in, or how do we get assurance that the commercial guys are going to be there.”
Russia's three-seat Soyuz capsule remains the workhorse of human spaceflight. It was baselined as the original lifeboat for the ISS, and one or two of the vehicles are docked there at all times in case the crew needs to return to Earth in an emergency. During the shuttle era it provided vital redundancy in human transport to the space station, which it demonstrated after the Columbia accident grounded the surviving shuttles. Now NASA wants the commercial crew vehicles to play that same role.
“The commercial crew program is important to the International Space Station program,” Gerstenmaier testified. “We need redundant crew transportation and rescue capability as soon as possible.”
Since the accident the Soyuz vehicles have been upgraded with digital flight computers that replace the analog versions in use for 30 years, at a weight savings of 70 kg. But in general, Russia has followed its traditional path with the Soyuz, making only incremental changes to address issues that crop up during operations and sticking with the tried-and-true approach typified in the continued use of the same launch site inaugurated by Yuri Gagarin on the first human spaceflight in 1961. The next likely change will be cutting the trip time between the Baikonur Cosmodrome and the ISS from 34 orbits over two days to four orbits in under 6 hr., a trajectory already demonstrated with Russia's Progress cargo vehicle (AW&ST Aug. 6, p. 14).
China, too, has followed an incremental path in developing the Shenzhou spacecraft that carries its astronauts to orbit. Essentially a Chinese upgrade of the basic Soyuz configuration of orbital, landing and service modules, Shenzhou has flown nine times, four of them with crews beginning with Yang Liwei on his October 2003 Shenzhou 5 solo mission. The most recent flight—Shenzhou 9 in June, with the nation's first female space traveler among its crew of three—demonstrated that astronauts could manually dock with the Tiangong-1 mini-space station, after the unmanned Shenzhou 8 demonstrated manual docking in October 2011. Between the two missions Chinese engineers made more than 400 changes in fault modes and procedures, including 100 related to the manual controls (AW&ST June 25, p. 34).
Shenzhou 10, originally built in case there was a problem with Shenzhou 8 and 9, is tentatively set to launch next year with another three-person crew and another manual docking on the manifest. China's stepwise approach to the fundamentals of human spaceflight is leading toward the deployment of a small space station in 2020 (AW&ST June 25, p. 18).