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Obama OMB opposes Shelby NASA 'poison pill' commercial space provision

Richard Shelby
Richard ShelbyPhoto by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The Obama administration has weighed on a provision in the senate version of the appropriations bill that includes a provision inserted by Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama. The provision would require commercial companies providing cargo and crew service to the International Space Station to provide extensive price and cost information, much like traditional NASA contractors. Many space advocates regard the provision as a poison pill, bound to increase costs and delay the commercial crew program. According to a Tuesday story in USA Today, the Office of Management and Budget agrees.

Under the Bush era Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems (COTS) and the Obama era follow up commercial crew program, various commercial companies have been contracted to develop privately run, largely publically financed space craft. The cargo versions of these spacecraft, including the SpaceX Dragon, are already in operation. The crewed versions are scheduled to go into operation in 2017. The program is operating under a Space Act Agreement which has NASA giving broad requirements, but leaves it up to the companies of how best to fulfill them.

While the commercial crew program has had the odor of government subsidies financing private business, it has been largely successful in developing spacecraft such as the Dragon V2, Congress has not provided the funding that the Obama administration has requested, much to the ire of commercial space advocates. Nevertheless there are good hopes that the first commercially operated, albeit government financed, crewed spacecraft will be flying by 2017.

Many commercial space advocates suspect that Shelby is trying in some way to protect the heavy lift Space Launch System that is being developed in his home state of Alabama. The Washington Times editorialized that the SLS is somehow in competition for NASA resources with the commercial crew program. The SLS is designed to take American astronauts on expeditions beyond low Earth orbit, something that the commercial crew vehicles are incapable of doing.

The original Bush space policy was designed to make space exploration and commercial space complimentary. While commercial space craft would take over the hum drum task of taking cargo and crew to and from low Earth orbit, NASA would focus on space exploration. But that meme seems to have been turned on its head, with both Shelby and his commercial space opponents now regarding the two programs to be at odds.