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Ukraine crisis pits NASA commercial crew program against Space Launch System

Space Launch System Launch
NASA

The continued strains over the Russian takeover of the Crimea from the Ukraine and its possible effects on the American space program has gotten the notice of politicians in Washington, according to a March 17, 2014 post on the Space Politics blog. How the United States should respond depends on who one asks.

Should NASA augment funding for the commercial crew program in order to get an alternative to the Russian Soyuz on line as quickly as possible. Yes, says Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL in a press release.

“Nelson used the release to argue for ‘properly’ funding NASA’s commercial crew program. ‘We’ve got to properly fund and support commercial space flight so we can keep our space program alive and well, no matter happens with Russia,’ Nelson said in the statement. Nelson’s office said the senator is a ‘proponent of additional funding’ for the program beyond the $696 million it received in fiscal year 2014; the FY2015 budget requests $848 million for the program. The release stated at Nelson will meet with Kennedy Space Center director Bob Cabana Tuesday afternoon ‘to get the latest updates.’”

In the meantime, two Republican politicians suggested that the heavy lift Space Launch System is being underfunded, compromising future American space leadership.

“However, commercial crew doesn’t have similar statements of support from other members of Congress. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) told the Huntsville Times that while commercial crew is one way to get American astronauts to orbit, the Space Launch System (SLS) ‘is more important for long-term access and national security,’ according to the report.

“Brooks was upset with the FY15 budget proposal’s request of $1.38 billion for SLS. ‘I would like to see SLS receive a minimum of $1.6 billion for vehicle development in FY 2015,’ he told the Times. ‘Anything less than $1.6 billion delays SLS availability.’

“Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) has similar views, telling the Times that he feels commercial crew is properly funded despite the growing concerns about access to the ISS should relations with Russia deteriorate. ‘Vice Chairman Shelby will continue to fight for SLS because it’s the only viable option for America to maintain its leadership role in human space flight,’ said a statement provided to the newspaper, referring to Shelby’s position as the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.”

The competing statements suggest two possible outcomes for NASA funding. There will either be a partisan battle between advocates of space exploration and supporters of commercial space that will result in gridlock, at least until a possible Republican takeover of the Senate. Or the two sides will come together to find the money to properly fund both the commercial crew and Space Launch System programs.