Continuing my summary of remarks I made at the Aerospace Industries Association space panel on Sept. 14 on Capitol Hill:
The nation requires assured access to the International Space Station, now nearly complete and about to embark on more than a decade of fundamental research and exploration technology testing on the threshold of deep space. The facility has cost the taxpayer over $50 billion, and we must have the means to launch our own astronauts, on our own launch systems, to the ISS as soon as possible. The imminent retirement of the shuttle and our forced reliance on Russian launch systems (Soyuz) calls our leadership in space exploration into question.
I have seen first-hand the professionalism in the NASA/industry team, and in four flights I repeatedly placed my safety in the hands of that team. I have confidence that both elements could execute a program to rapidly field an interim government-run launch system in the near future.
With NASA’s fifty years of human spaceflight experience, earned in close partnership with industry, the agency can do the near-term job of reaching LEO safely and surely. Cost and schedule are an issue, so NASA should move rapidly to acquire a commercial booster capability married to a NASA-procured spacecraft, creating a combination that clearly exceeds shuttle safety standards and that quickly restores our access to low Earth orbit. Solid congressional support, as I discussed in Part I, will be necessary now and throughout the decade.
I believe new commercial space companies will be successful, but their performance, cost, and safety record is unproven. How will they apply NASA’s safety experience and standards to produce a reliable, efficient, and safe system? I believe the surest course to moving NASA out of the LEO crew transport business is to give those firms the chance to demonstrate their skills via cargo delivery to ISS.
NASA should provide strong oversight over the cargo service firms, examining and advising on the test program, the reliability, and the cost. Based on that performance record, the Congress and NASA can decide on when the nation can phase out government-provided crew services to LEO. NASA’s goal should be to do so as soon as the business and safety case can be proven. Our taxpayer investment in ISS is at stake; it is worth protecting from a complete loss of LEO access, or impaired access through foreign rocket providers. I recognize that there will be added cost due to this phased-in approach, but reducing the risk of lost access to space warrants the extra expense. (The cost could have been avoided had proper investments been made five years ago).
A sustainable future direction, coming in Part III…