Press Release

Subcommittee Democrats Seek Assurance of Reliable and Timely Commercial Cargo Capability for the International Space Station

By SpaceRef Editor
May 26, 2011
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Subcommittee Democrats Seek Assurance of Reliable and Timely Commercial Cargo Capability for the International Space Station

(Washington, DC) – Today the House Science, Space, and Technology Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held a hearing to review the status of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) commercial cargo initiative and the overall readiness of commercial cargo providers to support the International Space Station (ISS). Members heard testimony and questioned witnesses from NASA, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), and representatives from the two companies that have Space Act Agreements under the Commercial Orbital Transportations Services (COTS) Project and the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) Program, Space Exploration Technologies (Space X) and Orbital Sciences Corporation (Orbital).

In 2006, NASA laid out a two-phase plan to ensure that vital equipment and supplies could be delivered to the ISS after the retirement of the space shuttle. In phase one, companies would be required to develop and demonstrate the capability to safely deliver cargo to the ISS. In phase two, when confident that commercial cargo sources were available, NASA would sign long-term CRS contracts with commercial cargo providers. However, NASA signed long-term resupply contracts with SpaceX and Orbital before either company had successfully demonstrated a commercial cargo flight. Furthermore, in 2010, NASA canceled the Constellation Program, which would have served as a contingency backup in case commercial cargo services were delayed or failed. Commercial providers are now fully responsible for the critical task of resupplying the ISS when the Space Shuttle retires in July.

In his opening remarks, Acting Ranking Member Jerry F. Costello (D-IL) said, “I hope to hear today how NASA, Congress, and commercial providers can work together to identify any remaining risks to reliable and timely commercial cargo operations, develop realistic expectations for the program, and ensure NASA has executable contingency options if commercial services are unavailable. We must ensure NASA has sustainable commercial cargo services for the life of the ISS without exposing the U.S. government to too much financial and programmatic risk.

Mr. William H. Gerstenmaier from NASA and Ms. Cristina Chaplain from GAO agreed that there is still a risk of delays. Mr. Gerstenmaier said, “NASA is pleased with the steady progress both companies continue to make in their cargo development efforts. While both companies have experienced technical and schedule challenges to date, that is not uncommon with major aerospace development efforts.” He emphasized that NASA anticipated startup challenges and allowed for a margin of error regarding cargo. The final Shuttle mission, STS-135, will carry supplies and spare parts that will allow the ISS to remain fully utilized through the end of 2012. Ms. Chaplain said that based on current launch dates for upcoming COTS demonstration missions, it is likely that neither commercial provider will launch its initial CRS mission on time.

Ms. Gwynne Shotwell of SpaceX and Mr. Frank Culbertson of Orbital expressed confidence in their companies’ abilities to complete their agreements with NASA and begin providing cargo to the ISS in 2012. They also stressed that a large portion of the financial risk lies with them and not with the U.S. government. NASA does not pay for a delay or a failure.

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SpaceRef staff editor.