SpaceX launch will be a key test for NASA

4 Feb

“It’s very important,” agreed Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, top Republican on the Senate science committee, which oversees NASA. “Every step that’s taken toward fulfilling the role (private companies) have been given by the administration is important.”

Hutchison speaks for congressional lawmakers who believe the Bush and Obama administrations were, in her words, “way too aggressive in turning over everything to the private sector and basically dismantling the expertise that we have built through all the years at NASA.”

SpaceX initially planned the launch — with no crew on board — for February 7, but pushed back the date to at least April while it conducts additional tests.

Recent missteps by Russia’s space agency, which now provides rides to U.S. astronauts, add to the pressure to speed development by American companies. NASA announced Thursday that Russia’s March 30 launch to bring crew to the space station has been delayed until May 15 because a descent capsule was damaged during a test.

Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said such delays are a routine — and necessary — part of a successful mission.

“When you’re dealing with human spaceflight, you have to make it right, and this is the predecessor to the human space flight,” said Nelson, who rode the shuttle and is hoping to attend the SpaceX launch at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “NASA has always taken the approach that you walk before you run.”

The Obama administration has a lot riding on the launch’s success and on the progress other private space companies are reporting as part of the shuttle replacement program known as the Commercial Crew program.

Last year, the president proposed spending $850 million on the program in the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Congress approved $406 million.

As part of its fiscal 2013 budget proposal due out Feb. 13, the administration is expected to ask for more money for the commercial crew program than it’s getting from Congress this year.

NASA officials say that level of funding forces the U.S. to continue relying chiefly on Russia to transport astronauts to the space station beyond 2016. Under the current contract, each round trip costs American taxpayers about $60 million.

Hard feelings have developed between some lawmakers and NASA over the Commercial Crew program. Hutchison and Sen. Jay Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, threatened to subpoena records from NASA in June because they didn’t believe the agency was providing straight and timely answers about the program.

A successful launch of the SpaceX rocket and spacecraft could ease some of the angst on Capitol Hill.

“This test launch will be an important milestone in developing commercial cargo capabilities to support the International Space Station while in-sourcing this work to American companies,” NASA spokesman David Weaver said. “Every test of this nature builds knowledge and gets us closer to the day when we can count on U.S. providers to reliably carry cargo and crews into space, freeing up NASA to focus on deep space exploration.”

Despite the launch delay, SpaceX had some good news to share this week. The company, headquartered in Hawthorne, Ca., reported successfully test-firing its new SuperDraco engine essential to the escape system necessary for the mission to the space station.

With the shuttle in mothballs, it may be too late to change course anyway, said Logsdon. It’s an opinion shared by Howard E. McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University in Washington.

“The government is deeply committed to the commercial approach,” McCurdy said in an email. “Turning in a different direction would be very difficult at this point.”

McCurdy hopes Congress and the White House are patient with the Commercial Crew program and recognize that it represents a fundamental break from the old ways of sending people and supplies into space.

When NASA provided the only U.S. human flight carrier, the government spent billions to avoid failure, he said. Now that it’s largely in private hands, firms such as SpaceX will provide a service that’s sure to experience some misfires but also to enjoy profound successes because of the competition.

SpaceX, which has a $1.6 billion contract to fly cargo to the space station, isn’t the only company in the mix.

Orbital Sciences Corp., which has the only other commercial crew contract ($1.9 billion, eight flights), plans a test launch of its Antares (formerly Taurus II) rocket fairly soon, to be followed by a demonstration flight of its Cygnus cargo spacecraft to the station.


Nelson said it’s important to note that even with these private ventures, NASA maintains a strong hand on the rudder and won’t take shortcuts.

“NASA has a very good record to make sure things are right before they launch,” Nelson said. “And the two times on the space shuttle program that they neglected it, we had catastrophe.”

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