HOUSTON — Funding for NASA’s commercial crew space transportation services initiative appears headed for funding problems that could undermine the agency’s efforts to regain the independent U.S. human launch capability that lapsed with the shuttle program’s retirement earlier this year, members of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) warned Oct. 21.

President Barack Obama’s 2012 budget request seeks $850 million in annual funding for the initiative through 2016, though the overall program cost has not been identified. In the meantime, Congress has yet to agree on an agency spending plan that anticipates flat funding of $18.72 billion annually through the same period, despite new pressures from the Space Launch System and the over-budget James Webb Space Telescope.

“If America wants a solid space program, it has to be a priority,” says Joseph Dyer, the retired U.S. Navy vice admiral who chairs the eight-member panel. The ASAP met at the Johnson Space Center this week for briefings on the agency’s Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) 2 initiative and other safety concerns.

The panel notes CCDev is transitioning away from the initial Space Act Agreements that brought emerging providers, along with traditional aerospace participants, to the program and toward more traditional development contracts. Those agreements, while giving NASA greater insight into the development, will in turn transition into service agreements intended to initiate launches of astronauts to the International Space Station by late 2016.

But the goals of establishing reliable transportation with adequately managed risk at a competitive price depend on multiple service providers. Without sufficient funding, NASA will be forced to delay its development objectives or refocus the funding it has on a single provider, undermining reliability and cost effectiveness, ASAP member John Marshall says.

The current program includes funded participants Blue Origin, Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX, as well as two unfunded participants, ATK and United Launch Alliance.