NASA Commercial Flight Program Faces Delays, Funding Woes

Space agency and its partners move ahead with plans for spacecraft that can transport crew and cargo into space.
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
NASA's Next Mission: Deep Space
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
Despite persistent challenges to NASA's commercial spaceflight program, the agency's partners continue to make progress on spacecraft development, with two launch tests planned for the first quarter of 2012.

Under its Commercial Crew Program, NASA has been working with companies in the private sector to develop ways to send crew and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) now that the Space Shuttle program has ended.

That plan has faced delays, however, specifically in testing the craft that will take commercial crew into space, the agency said in its most recent report on the program's progress.

There could be further setbacks, as funding for the program is half of what the agency had planned, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office. That could affect the agency's ability to execute its current plan as competition in this emerging market will likely suffer, wrote the GAO.

[ The space agency is tapping small and midsize businesses for new tech ideas. See NASA Reviews 300 Space Innovation Ideas From SMBs. ]

Two of the companies building spacecraft for NASA's Commercial Orbital Transportation (COTS) program--Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp. (OSC)--plan to test their vehicles in February or March, according to NASA.

However, those tests--the second test launch for SpaceX's and the first for OSC—are already behind schedule. SpaceX originally planned to test its COTS vehicles in three demo flights originally scheduled for September 2008, June 2009, and September 2009. While it flew one successful flight in December 2010, the next test of its launch vehicle--scheduled for Feb. 7, 2012--will be only its second test flight.

OSC also is behind schedule in demonstrations of its Cygnus cargo vehicle and Antares launch vehicle (the latter was previously called "Taurus II"), according to NASA. The company is integrating initial Antares launch vehicles at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia for a February or March test flight, while a test of Cygnus has been pushed up from December 2010 to April of next year.

"The schedule delays experienced by our partners over the life of the COTS program are indicative of the challenges associated with developing and flying new, highly complex launch vehicles and spaceflight systems," the agency said in its report.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden warned of delays to the commercial spaceflight program in November, when he said the first commercial flights--originally scheduled for 2015--likely won't happen until 2017 due to the Congressional allocation for the program, which is $500 million. The agency asked for $850 million.

The funding shortfall increases "the risk that the government will pay more than anticipated, as few or no competitors will exist to help control market prices," said GAO.

NASA has an "aggressive" schedule for its commercial crew transportation program, a situation that leaves the agency with little wiggle room if lack of competition or other factors impact its plans.

How 10 federal agencies are tapping the power of cloud computing--without compromising security. Also in the new, all-digital InformationWeek Government supplement: To judge the success of the OMB's IT reform efforts, we need concrete numbers on cost savings and returns. Download our Cloud In Action issue of InformationWeek Government now. (Free registration required.)