Debating Support for Commercial Spaceflight

“Every man has a right to his own opinion, but no man has a right to be wrong in his facts.”
-Bernard Baruch (1950)


This week saw the successful arrival of SpaceX's Dragon at the International Space Station, satisfying the delivery component of the first flight under NASA's Commercial Resupply Services contract. Earlier this week also saw a posting on The Space Review, “Perceptions vs. reality in NASA's commercial crew and cargo program”, pointing out that support for commercial spaceflight from a policy and law standpoint extends back to previous administrations. (Stone, 2012.) Although this article was an attempt to show that support for commercial spaceflight is not simply a manifestation of the current administration, it does miss part of the equation. As I wrote previously in “Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 6: Conclusion“, policy and law forms one side of the implementation framework; the other half is actual implementation plans and funding. (Williams, 2011.) Taking a more holistic view, where does commercial stand with recent administrations and recent Congresses?

One source of funding information is NASA's annual budget requests. The reports that accompany the budget request often (but not always!) include the amount appropriated by the Congress for the current year. The other key piece of information is implementation in the form of programs and contracts. Let's review these two pieces of information.

Prior to the FY11 budget request, commercial crew and cargo was carried budget-wise under Constellation Systems. At that time, the effort consisted of the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services, or COTS for short, and the Commercial Resupply Services contract, or CRS for short. Under COTS, NASA invested in several companies to develop cargo transportation services to the International Space Station; following that, NASA would contract for actual cargo delivery devices under CRS. The first COTS award was made to SpaceX and Rocketplane Kistler in late 2006; a second round award was made to SpaceX and Orbital in 2008. (NASA, 2012b.) I recall a crew component, “COTS-D”, being discussed and worked internally at NASA to an extent at the time, but it wasn't pursued to the same degree of funding and implementation as the cargo transportation services under COTS. Funding requests and enactments at the time were roughly in the $100-200 million range. (NASA, 2012c.). Although the difference in requests and appropriations from year to year is hard to divine from the budget documents, I don't recall any major disconnects between the requests from the administration and the funding from the Congress. It was also during this timeframe that NASA competed the CRS contract, awarded in 2008 to the two COTS companies, SpaceX and Orbital. (NASA, 2008.) At this moment (and as demonstrated with this week's flight), SpaceX is delivering cargo under CRS; Orbital is still developing and demonstrating its cargo-delivering capability under COTS.

The FY11 request is where the game changed. Besides canceling Constellation (NASA's next major human spaceflight program), it also saw two implementation changes relative to commercial crew. First, commercial cargo and crew was moved into its own budget line item. (NASA, 2012c.) Next, NASA initiated the Commercial Crew Development effort, or CCDev for short, initially seeded by funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. (NASA, 2012a.) Following the model established by cargo, NASA would invest in several companies to develop a crew transportation service capability, then would follow that up with actual fixed price contracts, mimicking the COTS/CRS paradigm. The budget numbers accompanying the effort show a definite uptick over the cargo-only numbers, but also show a difference in priorities between the administration and the Congress. For the two most recent years, the amounts requested to cover COTS, CRS, and CCDev were roughly in the $800 million range; however, the amount appropriated by the Congress in the most recently concluded fiscal year was closer to $400 million. (NASA, 2012c.) (Note: the current fiscal year is operating under a continuing resolution, so the amount “appropriated” for the current fiscal year remains at a pace to match last year's $400 million appropriation until the Congress passes a spending bill). The increased emphasis on commercial crew was part and parcel with the cancelation of Constellation as a matter of policy implementation. (NASA, 2012c.)

What can we conclude from this?

First, support for commercial cargo spans administrations. This is supported by both the instruments of policy/law as well as implementation/funding. However, The Space Review article somewhat disingenuously extends the policy/law argument as demonstrating support for all aspects of commercial spaceflight. The implementation/funding data don't support that assertion. Although supported by policy/law, commercial crew was not supported by implementation/funding until FY11 with the creation of CCDev and budgetary numbers that supported a dedicated commercial crew transportation service development effort.

Unfortunately, debates between the administration and the Congress (and their respective supporters) on implementation/funding priorities for commercial spaceflight continue to this day. Because of the party split between the administration and the House of Representatives, the debate on commercial spaceflight support is colored in terms of political affiliation. As is typical in such debates, cherry-picking of facts by both sides to build a political case is rampant. Those on one side ignore the cargo efforts under the previous administration; those on the other ignore the low emphasis on commercial crew until the current administration. It's only through a holistic view that we gather all the facts concerning policy, law, implementation plans, and funding, and from that develop a more complete picture.

In my view, it doesn't matter whether a given administration was or was not an advocate of a particular aspect of commercial spaceflight; the real challenge is moving forward with a mixture of public and private efforts where implementation and funding at the federal level will continue to be pressured with threats of future reductions and cuts. I think that is something upon which all can agree.


Text © 2012 Joe Williams. All rights reserved.
Image courtesy of NASA.



National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2008, December 23.) NASA Awards Space Station Resupply Services Contracts. Retrieved from

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2012a, March 7.) CCDev Information. Retrieved October 11, 2012 from

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2012b, April 9.) Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS). Retrieved October 11, 2012 from

National Aeronautics and Space Administration. (2012c, June 13.) Budget Documents, Strategic Plans and Performance Reports. Retrieved October 11, 2012 from

Stone, C. (2012, October 8.) Perception vs. reality in NASA's commercial crew and cargo program. The Space Review. Retrieved from

Williams, J. (2011, August 20.) Human Spaceflight Directions, Part 6: Conclusion. Leading Space. Retrieved from


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