Obama budget promotes commercial space efforts
In our previous assessment of this promise, we ruled that the administration had already kept its promise to stimulate the commercial use of space (through a $50 million provision in the economic stimulus bill) and "private-sector utilization of the International Space Station" (through a request for scientific projects that could be performed on the space station). The one aspect of Obama's campaign pledge that held it back from a rating of Promise Kept was the promise to "establish new processes and procurement goals to promote the use of government facilities."
The wording of this part of the promise is a bit vague, but we belive that the release of his fiscal year 2011 budget goes a long way toward satisfying this part of the promise by proposing a landmark shift toward the commercial space sector.
First, some background. After the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 or 2011, the United States will face a gap in its ability to carry crews (and possibly cargo) to the International Space Station. In the short term, the United States is planning to contract with Russia to carry its astronauts to the space station. In the longer term, the United States had been relying on a next-generation system known as Constellation.
However, the president's budget proposes canceling Constellation after having spent $9 billion on it. "NASA's Constellation program ... was over budget, behind schedule, and lacking in innovation due to a failure to invest in critical new technologies," the administration said in its proposed budget.
In its place, the budget advocates encouraging commercial solutions to the challenge of ferrying crews into orbit.
Already, two private spaceflight companies, Orbital and SpaceX, are under contract to deliver cargo -- though not crews -- via rockets to the space station once the space shuttle has ended its operations. The president's budget proposes that they, or similar companies, also get into the crew-carrying business.
"Building off successful progress in the development of commercial cargo capabilities, the budget invests $6 billion over five years to spur the development of American commercial human spaceflight vehicles," the proposed budget said, adding that NASA "will allocate these funds through competitive solicitations." NASA, the budget emphasized, "will ensure that all systems meet the agency's stringent human-rating requirements."
Separately, the budget would provide $312 million in fiscal year 2011 for "additional incentives for NASA's current domestic commercial cargo service providers."
Skeptics have called the administration's proposal a risky one. If the eventual goal is for the United States to be self-reliant for carrying astronauts into orbit, canceling Constellation puts all of NASA's eggs into one untested basket of commercial spaceflight providers.
While the administration has concluded that it's worth taking that risk in the hope of reducing the cost of human spaceflight in order to make human spaceflight financially viable in the long run, there's no guarantee that the president's proposal will win the day. The forces supporting Constellation are substantial. They include lawmakers from Alabama, Florida and Texas, the states most deeply involved in Constellation; these lawmakers possess influence in Congress, which must agree to the changes Obama envisions for NASA.
Still, space experts say the push to commercialize seems almost unstoppable. On a separate track, the Federal Aviation Administration is working to establish a new Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation next year. The agency would fund the center at $1 million per year year, with additional funds coming from the host institution. A public meeting was held on Feb. 9 with interested parties to discuss the effort. And Edward Ellegood, space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, said that the Pentagon is also "taking new steps to utilize and support the commercial launch industry."
It's true that vested interests in Congress could pose obstacles for space commercialization. But we think the administration is doing enough on multiple tracks to earn this a Promise Kept.
Office of Management and Budget, NASA fact sheet from the president's fiscal year 2011 budget proposal, Feb. 1, 2010
National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Estimates, Feb. 1, 2010
St. Petersburg Times, "Florida feels heat of NASA cutbacks," Feb. 2, 2010
New York Times, "Billions for NASA, With a Push to Find New Ways Into Space," Feb. 2, 2010,
parabolicarc.com, "FAA to Set Up Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation," Dec. 18, 2009
E-mail interview with Marcia Smith of spacepolicyonline.com, Feb. 2, 2010
E-mail interview with Edward Ellegood, space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Feb. 12, 2010
NASA widens private-sector use of space, but procurement overhaul awaits
Barack Obama made several space-related promises during the presidential campaign. One of those was to "stimulate the commercial use of space and private sector utilization of the International Space Station. He will establish new processes and procurement goals to promote the use of government facilities."
This is actually a combination of three promises, two of which we have already rated. We'll take them one by one.
"Will stimulate the commercial use of space."
Earlier this year, NASA sought proposals on how to spend $50 million from the economic stimulus package in ways that would "stimulate efforts within the private sector to develop and demonstrate human spaceflight capabilities."
According to the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group that seeks to "make commercial human spaceflight a reality," the $50 million offering "represents a new milestone in the development of an orbital commercial human spaceflight sector," allowing "several companies to move a few steps forward towards the ultimate goal of full demonstration of commercial human spaceflight to orbit." Proposals are due Sept. 22, 2009, with the funds to be fully spent by Sept. 30, 2010, as required by the stimulus bill.
Two private spaceflight companies, Orbital and SpaceX, are under contract to deliver cargo by rockets to the International Space Station after the space shuttle is phased out in 2010 or 2011. The $50 million in the solicitation would go toward developing ways for the private companies to ferry crew members, not just cargo, to the space station. (Between the retirement of the space shuttle and the date that its replacement, Constellation, is operational, the United States will contract with Russia to carry astronauts to the space station.)
The $50 million in this solicitation is, by itself, hardly enough to make it possible for private companies to launch crew members into space. But the Obama campaign said it would act to stimulate efforts in that regard, so we rated this a Promise Kept.
Will stimulate "private sector utilization of the International Space Station"
The 2005 NASA Authorization Act designated the U.S. segment of the ISS as a national laboratory, and this legislation, according to NASA, directed the space agency to develop a plan to "increase the utilization of the ISS by other federal entities and the private sector." On the ISS Web site, NASA says that "as the nation's newest national laboratory, the ISS will further strengthen relationships among NASA, other federal entities, and private sector leaders in the pursuit of national priorities for the advancement of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The ISS National Laboratory will also open new paths for the exploration and economic development of space."
So the authority to move in this direction was already in place when the Obama administration took office. On Aug. 6, 2009, the new administration moved matters forward.
On that date, it formally invited "federal, state and local government entities, and ... U.S. private entities (including, but not limited to, commercial firms, nonprofit entities, and academic institutions)" to propose projects in "basic and applied research, technology development and industrial processing" that could be performed on the International Space Station.
"Proposed activities should involve [research and development], including, but not limited to, life sciences, sensors, communication equipment, engineering testbeds, spacecraft design and testing, or education and should demonstrate potential benefit to the public, such as development of future products and services contributing to U.S. industrial capacity and economic growth or improving [science, technology, engineering and mathematics] education," the request said. The window for proposals is open through Dec. 31, 2014, and the outside parties, not the federal government, will be responsible for financing their own activities.
The NASA solicitation amounts to a major step forward. The partnerships are not under way yet, but Obama only promised to "enlist other federal agencies, industry and academia to develop innovative scientific and technological research projects on the International Space Station." By issuing the the solicitation, the administration has enlisted support from those groups. We rated it a Promise Kept.
"Will establish new processes and procurement goals to promote the use of government facilities."
Space experts told PolitiFact that they are not aware of any tangible progress on this promise since the administration took office.
So, two-thirds of this promise rates as a Promise Kept, and the final third qualifies as No Action. Put it all together and you get an In the Works.
NASA, Solicitation for NASA's Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, Aug. 10, 2009
Commercial Spaceflight Federation, " NASA Announces Plan to Invest in Commercial Crew Concepts ," Aug. 4, 2009
NASA, " Opportunity for the use of the International Space Station by domestic entities other than U.S. federal government agencies ," Aug. 6, 2009
NASA, International Space Station home page , accessed Oct. 5, 2009
U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, summary report , Sept. 8, 2009
E-mail interviews with Edward Ellegood, space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, September 2009
E-mail interviews with Marcia Smith of spacepolicyonline.com, October 2009