White House Decides to Outsource NASA Work

Wall Street Journal — The White House has decided to begin funding private companies to carry NASA astronauts into space, but the proposal faces major political and budget hurdles, according to people familiar with the matter.

The controversial proposal, expected to be included in the Obama administration’s next budget, would open a new chapter in the U.S. space program. The goal is to set up a multiyear, multi-billion-dollar initiative allowing private firms, including some start-ups, to compete to build and operate spacecraft capable of ferrying U.S. astronauts into orbit—and eventually deeper into the solar system.

Congress is likely to challenge the concept’s safety and may balk at shifting dollars from existing National Aeronautics and Space Administration programs already hurting for funding to the new initiative. The White House’s ultimate commitment to the initiative is murky, according to these people, because the budget isn’t expected to outline a clear, long-term funding plan.

The White House’s NASA budget also envisions stepped-up support for climate-monitoring and environmental projects, along with enhanced international cooperation across both manned and unmanned programs.

Press officials for NASA and the White House have declined to comment. Industry and government officials have talked about the direction of the next NASA budget, but declined to be identified.

The idea of outsourcing a portion of NASA’s manned space program to the private sector gained momentum after recommendations from a presidential panel appointed last year. The panel, chaired by former Lockheed Martin Corp. Chairman Norman Augustine, argued that allowing companies to build and launch their own rockets and spacecraft to carry American astronauts into orbit would save money and also free up NASA to focus on more ambitious, longer-term goals.

However, many in NASA’s old guard oppose the plan. Charles Precourt, a former chief of NASA’s astronaut corps who is now a senior executive at aerospace and defense firm Alliant Techsystems Inc., said that farming out large portions of the manned space program to private firms would be a “really radical” and an “extremely high risk” path. Unless the overall budget goes up, he said, whatever new direction NASA pursues “isn’t going to be viable.”

Such arguments already are raging around NASA’s Ares I rocket, which could be replaced or scaled back if the commercial option gains traction. Some Ares I contract work could be shifted toward providing the basic elements of a future larger, more-powerful NASA family of rockets. Alliant and other Ares proponents have argued the program is several years behind schedule primarily because Congress and previous administrations failed to provide promised funding. According to some of these analyses, Congress in the past five years earmarked a total of about $4 billion less than initially projected for NASA’s manned exploration programs. The design of the Ares I also changed and became more complex since its inception.

Ares critics, on the other hand, counter that instead of costing about $4.3 billion as originally planned, the Ares booster is likely to cost more than three times that much. The program already has spent roughly $4 billion, and these critics say that exceeds original funding profiles for the Ares I by hundreds of millions of dollars. Moreover, they say that year-by-year expenditures actually exceeded the original timetable. NASA’s last budget projected spending another $9.5 billion through 2015.

Space Exploration Technologies Corp., founded by Internet entrepreneur Elon Musk, is one of the start-up commercial ventures likely to gain from the proposed policy shift. But other large incumbent NASA contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co. also are likely to compete for some of the anticipated government seed money earmarked for new commercial ventures.

The White House’s budget is bound to spark a battle with Congress because NASA would have to kill off big chunks of its existing manned exploration program in order to finance some of these new initiatives in the coming years. The budget package, slated to be released in early February, is expected to stop short of proposing major cancellations. But it also isn’t likely to specify how all the different programs can be adequately funded in the future.

Under the White House proposal, the agency’s top-line budget is expected to stay close to the $18.7 billion in the current fiscal year. Only a small portion—roughly $200 million—is likely to be slated for the initial phase of opening up NASA’s manned space exploration program to private firms. However, that initiative is expected to cost a least $3.5 billion—and potentially much more—over the next five years.

Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona Democrat who heads a key subcommittee, has blasted the notion of shifting money to outsource transporting astronauts to the international space station. Unless Congress makes the NASA budget a higher priority, Rep. Giffords said during a hearing last month, there won’t be enough money for robust manned exploration efforts of any kind and U.S. human space flight could be “on hold for the foreseeable future.”

Original article posted online at WSJ.com.

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