NASA director to Congress: Funding NASA is an investment in American industry

NASA administrator Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden urged legislators to increase funding for NASA's Commercial Crew Program, in an editorial published on Friday in Wired magazine.

Molly Riley/Reuters
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr. tears up as he remarks on the successful launch of the last space shuttle Atlantis in Washington July 12, 2011. Dr. Bolden urged Congress not to make NASA 'hitch rides' to the International Space Station with Russia, in an op-ed published in Wired magazine on Friday.

NASA administrator Maj. Gen. Charles Bolden issued a stern request to the US Congress today calling legislators to fully fund the agency’s collaboration with private aerospace companies developing a shuttle program to carry American astronauts to the International Space Station.

NASA retired its shuttle program in 2011, and since then NASA has been paying the Russian Federal Space Agency (Roscosmos) to carry American astronauts to the ISS. In an editorial published by Wired on Friday, General Bolden called on Congress to fully fund the agency’s Commercial Crew Program.

 In 2010, President Obama laid out the future of the American space program as a two-pronged effort. One part would involve NASA researching deep spaceflight, culminating in a mission to send US astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. While that was going on, the agency would also contract with private American companies to develop a new generation of shuttles to carry American astronauts to the ISS. 

The plan is called Commercial Crew, and Bolden writes that since its inception Congress has chronically underfunded the program.

“Since 2010, the President has received approximately $1 billion less than he requested for NASA’s Commercial Crew initiative. During this time we’ve sent $1 billion to Russia,” Bolden writes. 

“Space travel is complex,” he writes, “but this choice is simple: Do we invest in ourselves – in our businesses, our ingenuity, our people – or do we choose instead to send our tax-dollars to Russia?” 

Bolden writes that he supported the decision to shutter NASA’s shuttle program, but adds that “it was always supposed to be temporary.”

Despite the funding gaps, NASA has made some progress with the program. Last year the agency agreed a $6.8 billion deal with SpaceX and Boeing to develop a new generation of space shuttles that would ferry American astronauts into near space.

The investment was praised at the time. Jonathan McDowell, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told The Christian Science Monitor’s Noelle Swan that NASA’s role “should be at the frontier.”

“Trucking astronauts and their food and supplies and so on is no longer the frontier,” he added. “NASA astronauts shouldn’t be truck drivers. That’s not what they’re for. They’re for being the first people on Mars, or on an asteroid.”

But the funding shortfalls have persisted, and Bolden writes that they have led to delays in the Commercial Crew Program and, more recently, an extension of NASA’s contract with Roscosmos to shuttle American astronauts.

On Aug. 5, Bolden sent a letter to Congress informing them that, due to the reductions in Obama’s funding requests for the Commercial Crew Program, NASA was “forced” to extend its contract with the Russian agency – to the tune of $490 million.

“I am asking that we put past disagreements behind us and focus our collective efforts on support for American industry – the Boeing Corporation and SpaceX – to complete construction and certification of their crew vehicles so that we can begin launching our crews from the Space Coast of Florida in 2017,” he wrote.

Three weeks later, Bolden is making a similar request. In the Wired piece he adds that, had Congress adequately funded the Commercial Crew program from the outset, “we could have been making final preparations this year to once again launch American astronauts to space from American soil aboard American spacecraft.” 

The letter also came five months after Bolden was scolded by Sen. Ted Cruz (R) of Texas for a perceived decrease in agency spending on space operations.

“Almost any American would agree that the core function of NASA is to explore space,” Cruz said.

“That’s what inspires little boys and little girls across this country,” he added. “I am concerned that NASA in the current environment has lost its full focus on that core mission.”

In his Wired op-ed Bolden notes that the private American shuttle program would be cheaper in the long-run than paying Roscosmos to do the same thing. According to Bolden, it costs around $81 million to send an American astronaut to the ISS on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft. He says it will cost $58 million per seat to send American astronauts to the station once Boeing’s and SpaceX’s spacecraft are certified. 

“Every dollar we invest in Moscow is a dollar we’re not investing in American businesses,” he writes. “It’s as if we keep ordering expensive takeout because we haven’t yet set up our own kitchen.”

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