The commercial crew development (CCDev) programme, on which NASA has pinned its hopes for low Earth orbit (LEO), is entering a crucial period. The resolution required to fund NASA, which includes a specific line item for CCDev, faces continued challenges on the eve of its third and final round of awards.
After a display of sustained scepticism by influential members of the House Committee on Science and Technology on 26 October, the momentum behind CCDev is flagging in the face of budgetary pressures and competing programmes.
The major sticking point, publically at least, is the amount of money dedicated to the third and final round of CCDev, and just what capabilities will result. President Obama's budget request for NASA included $850 million for CCDev. The senate has appropriated only $500 million, and the house a mere $312 million. In contrast, the ill-defined Space Launch System is projected to cost upwards of $30 billion and would be significant overkill on CCDev missions; in any case, its predecessor programmes were cancelled for being far over budget and SLS may not escape that fate.
Buying Soyuz flights from Russia, currently the only method of transporting astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), costs $450 million annually and requires a waiver from laws sanctioning Russia for trade with Syria and North Korea.
Space programmes, as a general rule, are not known for hewing to projected budgets or timeframes. Participants in CCDev are no exception: budgetary figures are seldom divulged, but each programme is at least two years behind the schedules initially proposed. While no company has suggested it will withdraw for budgetary reasons at the Wednesday hearing - and two companies, SpaceX and Sierra Nevada, have made clear they will press on regardless of government funds - the same cannot be said of other contenders.
Even the most supportive legislators in the 26 October hearing questioned the existence, much less the scale, of a LEO market outside NASA, despite the fact that a key argument in favour of CCDev was that commercial launches will make government launches less expensive. Though numerous studies show there is a market for things like tourism and scientific research, without CCDev money the business case largely evaporates, leaving only idealism.
Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, is the most outwardly idealistic of the spacecraft builders - he has committed to build the Falcon series of rockets no matter what. Yet Musk suggested, after the 26 October hearing, that if NASA rules are too strict he may not bid for the third CCDev round.
CCDev now faces its most serious challenge - it must receive little enough money to avoid cancellation by legislators salivating at the chance, yet receive enough to keep companies interested. Both cancellation and lack of competition could result in monopoly, either for Russia or SpaceX.