Oct. 26, 2011 – 11:06 p.m.

Lawmakers Skeptical of NASA’s Plan for Commercial Spaceflight

It is still too early to tell whether President Obama’s plan to rely on a nascent commercial-spaceflight sector to carry astronauts into orbit will succeed. But one thing is clear: Private companies that design spacecraft need government funding.

Whether that funding can be sustained, especially in the current fiscal climate, is another open question. Lawmakers in both parties, particularly House members, are skeptical that commercial carriers will be able to operate without relying on the government for much of their revenue.

“NASA seemingly takes the position of ‘build it and they will come,’ ” House Science and Technology Chairman Ralph M. Hall, R-Texas, said Wednesday during an oversight hearing. “From my perspective, the business case is not very compelling.”

Fellow Texan Eddie Bernice Johnson, a Democrat, said that in view of the push to reduce discretionary spending, “I’ve got to be convinced that the benefits of NASA’s commercial-crew proposal outweigh the costs before I can be comfortable supporting it.”

Obama set the U.S. spaceflight program on a new course last year by proposing that manned spaceflights to low Earth orbit, including those to the International Space Station, be outsourced to commercial carriers.

Part of the administration’s calculation was that companies could leverage government investment to expand the private market for their services — much as federal mail contracts spurred development of the airline industry — and eventually reduce the overall cost to the government.

But it’s unknown whether that scenario is viable, both because of the cost of operating a spacecraft and because commercial-sector companies have not fully developed their own spacecraft.

John Elbon, a Boeing Co. executive, told the panel that his company is counting on government contracts for its commercial manned-spaceflight effort.

Where NASA issues are concerned, the relationship between Congress and the Obama administration has been tense since the president made his proposal. Obama did not help matters by proposing more money in his fiscal 2012 budget request for commercial-crew efforts than lawmakers authorized last year (PL 111-267) and less for NASA’s development of its own rocket and capsule for spaceflight beyond Earth’s orbit.

Obama recommended $850 million to support the development of commercial human spaceflight, compared with the $500 million in the authorization law.

The Senate version of the fiscal 2012 appropriations bill for the agency (S 1572) would allocate $500 million, while the House version (HR 2596) includes $312 million.

William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, told the House committee in his prepared testimony that the administration’s budget envisions that commercial carriers could begin ferrying astronauts to the space station “in the 2016 time frame.” But, he added, with a $500 million fiscal 2012 funding level, that timetable would slip until at least 2017.

With its shuttle fleet retired, NASA now relies on Russia’s space program to fly astronauts to the space station.