LOS ANGELES — The already delayed NASA Commercial Crew Program remains under threat of further hold-ups because of short-sighted congressional budget cuts in 2014, warns agency Administrator Charles Bolden.

The program is developing a U.S launch system to get astronauts to low Earth orbit, and was originally targeted at initial capability in 2015. However, reduced budgets over the past three years have pushed this back to 2017, forcing NASA to keep on extending its contract with Russian space agency Roscosmos to transport crews to the International Space Station (ISS) using Soyuz.

Now, as NASA faces additional funding shortfalls for fiscal 2014, in addition to the wider effects of sequestration, even this target could slide. This could make it harder for the companies competing for the Commercial Crew Program to develop solid business plans given the current schedule to phase out the ISS around 2020. Boeing, Sierra Nevada and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) are developing competing proposals under the Commercial Crew integrated Capability (CCiCAP) phase of the program.

Russia

“I authorized the writing of a check to the amount of about $454 million last month that went to Roscosmos, the Russian space agency. They are outside the United States the last time I checked,” Bolden says. The additional deal will “extend our reliance on Soyuz for just one more year between 2016 and 2017, because Congress has continued to agree with the president that Commercial Crew is really critical to our nation, to get us access to low Earth orbit.”

The president’s budget request for the program is $821 million, and with available “plus-up” funds, the agency believes it can accumulate $525 million. “That’s the difference between where we are now based on congressional appropriations and where the president is pleading that we get to,” Bolden said, speaking at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards AFB, Calif. That is where Sierra Nevada is preparing to start tests of its Dream Chaser lifting-body concept, which is the only one of the crew-transport designs that includes a runway landing,

“You do the math,” Bolden said. “There’s a $300 million delta between where the Congress is and where the president is. So I have to write a $454 million check to pay the Russians for transport of our crews because we cannot reach an agreement with Congress that allows them to give us an additional $300 million for the Commercial Crew program.”

Development program

Bolden adds that budget makers appear to have lost sight of the fact that “Commercial Crew will go away after 2017-2018. It’s not one of these forever programs. It’s a development program for companies like Sierra Nevada, Boeing and SpaceX, to take over responsibilities of transporting crews to low Earth orbit. Once we get those stood up, . . . the development program goes away and . . . I don’t write checks anymore. NASA then writes a check for whoever the company is to provide crew support, but Commercial Crew disappears from our budget line.”

From the broader NASA program perspective, the effects of sequestration in 2014 will mean inevitable delays and potential program cancellations. “We’re not going to make it work,” Bolden says, adding that the originally requested budget of $17.7 billion would “negate sequestration, take it off the table. If we end up in sequestration it significantly reduces the amount of money NASA will have. Under sequestration we’ll lose around 5%, so we’ll be down to $16.6 billion. It will move everything to the right, and [take] the lower priority items and kick them off the calendar. So sequestration is really, really, really bad. I can’t say it any other way,” he says.