So this is the guy who controls our space program?June 6, 2012
Congresscritter Frank R. Wolf, R-Va, is the chairman of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee. Yep, a double-hyphen subcommittee. He put out a statement yesterday telling us all he has reached an “understanding” with Charles “Not So” Bolden, NASA Administrator, as to how the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCAP) program will proceed.
You might recall – and you probably won’t – that here was noise from House Republicans that NASA was putting its eggs in too many baskets, and that it should pick one company to fund for a commercially-run crewed vehicle. Apparently the “understanding” between the Honorable Mr. Wolf and Mr. Bolden is that NASA will fund two, to “2.5” awards. That means two companies will get the full award amount, and one will get a “partial” award.
Now, I was pretty happy with the results of COTS, which was the program that helped fund the Dragon cargo vehicle, but one of the reasons for that was because NASA provided “seed money” to several companies through that program. SpaceX got something flying first. Orbital Sciences is going to be flying soon, I hope, but they are out of the next stage of the fight – they are concentrating on the cargo business, not on the passenger craft.
There are four competitors for the CCiCAP funds: SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin, and Sierra Nevada. I’m guessing Blue Origin is out of the running, pretty much. They have been moving very slowly, and are trying to develop one vehicle for orbital missions and another for suborbital commercial flights. (The suborbital part of the business is probably going to go to Virgin Galactic first. They should be flying passengers within a year.)
Sierra Nevada is bending tin and has a vehicle mostly completed. It’s a bit more of a long shot, in that it’s a lifting body. It doesn’t require a new booster – they plan to use an Atlas 5. Likewise, Boeing’s capsule-based design will be Atlas 5-launched. Blue Origin is trying to build a new booster as well as a vehicle, but they have proceeded in secrecy far more than the other companies.
The Liberty launch system, which is a joint Lockheed/Astrium/ATK vehicle that looks like the old Ares design, is a long shot in the CCiCAP race. While the ATK solid first stage is pretty much built, being based on a 5-segment of the Shuttle solid booster, the second stage needs to have the Vulcan engine adjusted for vacuum flight and for restarts in flight. The capsule is a lot like the Orion that Lockheed is building for NASA already, but with a composite structure instead of Orion’s more conventional metallic structure. One is under construction, but the whole system will probably not be flying before the Boeing, Sierra Nevada or SpaceX vehicles.
So two questions: first, who gets the money? My bet is on Boeing (because the government loooooves Boeing and they have a track record of building stuff that works) and SpaceX (because they have momentum as as well as a smart design and what looks like good engineering). Maybe Sierra will get the half-award. I just would be very surprised if SpaceX gets bumped, and Boeing has the inside track. That’s my guess.
The second,and bigger question is this: Why is one man able to dictate the course of our space program? And that man is a politician? Back when it looked like Wernher von Braun was running our space program in the 1960s at least it was being run by a guy with skills and vision. This Wolf dude – what does he bring to the party? He seems, from the press release I referenced above, to be more of a nay-sayer. Sure, he wants to make sure the vehicle is safe. Don’t we all? But what qualifications does he have? Will he do so by hamstringing the companies with a legion of inspectors? That’s the government way. The lack of so much elbow-jiggling was what made it possible for SpaceX to achieve what it has for the amount it cost.
I think this statement is more CYA than anything else. He doesn’t want a Challenger-type failure on his watch. It might, Heaven forbid, affect his ability to be re-elected. (I hope you heard the sarcasm.)
And another thing: why does he get to make these decisions? Aren’t there other members of the subcommittee? And it’s a subcommittee, for God’s sake! He should be the first step in setting this appropriation, but not the sole arbiter. It sure sounds from the press release as though he is completely in control.
I’m not happy with the way the politicians are fooling with this. Again, the space program is considered by Congress as some kind of Federal jobs program and just another way for congresscritters to distribute largesse. Sigh.