By ANDY PASZTOR
NASA is drafting backup plans to prolong the use of Russian spacecraft for ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station, even as agency officials play down those options and express hope that private rockets and capsules will be available for such trips within five years.
Charles Bolden, head of National Aeronautics and Space Administration, told the House Science Committee last week that the space agency was taking early steps to line up additional Russian spacecraft—which have been NASA’s only option since the U.S. space-shuttle fleet was retired last year—because budget constraints were delaying the development of commercial crew vehicles.
“Given current funding levels,” Mr. Bolden said in written testimony, “we anticipate the need to purchase [Russian] crew transportation and rescue capabilities into 2017.” The commercial U.S. space taxis were originally envisioned to be in service by early 2016.
The NASA chief said his agency still hopes private space taxis can be ready “no later than 2017.” But in response to questions about longer-term plans, he said the agency wasn’t guaranteed to have “commercial capability in time to support the space station” before its currently scheduled retirement in 2020.
The backup moves underscore heightened concern among U.S. officials over the availability of commercial space taxis by the 2017 deadline. NASA’s leadership, however, has downplayed the likelihood of having to implement such plans partly to avoid undercutting public and congressional support for commercial initiatives.
NASA’s leadership calls contingency plans common-sense alternatives in case private options face unexpected technical problems. Critics—including leaders of House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over NASA—argue the agency seeks to invest too much in initiatives to outsource crew transportation to industry. The fundamental problem, according to these lawmakers, is that such efforts to reach low-earth orbit threaten to drain funds from dual-purpose programs capable of ferrying astronauts to the station and eventually taking them on more-ambitious missions to explore an asteroid or even Mars.
Congress cut this year’s funding for commercial-crew initiatives to $400 million, less than 50% of NASA’s request. House and Senate leaders are expected to repeat that budget pattern for the next fiscal year.
NASA leadership, according to government and industry officials, is also considering contracting for Russian help for future cargo deliveries to the International Space Station. Agency officials have discussed contracting one or two additional Russian resupply flights in the event there are further holdups in developing private cargo capsules. Over the years NASA has used Russian spacecraft to augment cargo deliveries by American space shuttles, but agency officials envisioned switching over to new commercial missions shortly before or after retirement of the shuttle fleet.
Commercial cargo flights to the International Space Station, originally slated for as early as 2010, are now scheduled to start in the second half of this year. But many space experts inside and outside NASA feel that timetable could slip further, and they say the international consortium running the station could face a serious crunch in supplies around 2014.
In his testimony, Mr. Bolden said he wasn’t concerned about potential cargo delays. But within the agency, NASA managers are actively discussing various Russian options to ensure supplies remain adequate to sustain a six-person crew aboard the station, according to people familiar with the details.
and closely held Space Exploration Technologies Corp.
NASA is expected to pick companies to receive the next phase of funding in a few months. Construction contracts are scheduled to be awarded in about two years.
More broadly, NASA’s search for alternatives coincides with continuing bipartisan skepticism on Capitol Hill about progress of commercial-crew programs. Rep. Ralph Hall, the Texas Republican who heads the House Science Committee, said he remained “deeply concerned” that NASA is “putting large sums of tax dollars at risk” by pursuing its commercial strategy. Maryland Democratic Rep. Donna Edwards told Mr. Bolden that “every program in your (latest) budget takes a hit,” except for commercial-crew efforts. But she complained “it doesn’t seem to me there is a real plan yet” for a viable commercial manned program. A few hours earlier, Mr. Bolden fielded tough questions on many of the same issues from members of the Senate Commerce Committee, which shares jurisdiction over NASA. “We don’t think you have enough in your budget” to support longer-term NASA programs, like building a capsule to explore deeper into the solar system, said Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, a leading Republican voice on space issues, said NASA was cutting development of a heavy-lift rocket “to shore up commercial-crew” spending.
Write to Andy Pasztor at email@example.com
A version of this article appeared Mar. 12, 2012, on page A6 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: NASA May Need to Use Russian Flights Longer.agency officials, russian spacecraft, charles bolden <BR/>