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Saving Suborbital: Will Congress Kill NASA's Reusable Space Program?

When there are dozens of flights per week of multiple reusable vehicle types into space, we will start to rapidly accumulate a lot of knowledge of how to operate reusable space vehicles -- even if they don’t go all the way to orbit. Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace and member of last year’s Augustine panel on the direction of human spaceflight, has long said that it’s a lot easier to develop an operable vehicle and expand its performance envelope than to build a high-performance vehicle and make it operable. Given sufficient market, the suborbital vehicles, whether horizontal or vertical takeoff and landing, will gradually evolve to fly higher and faster, eventually reaching orbit and dramatically reducing the cost of access to space. This is the key to truly opening it up to humanity.

Unfortunately, the House didn’t seem to think that any of this was of much value, preferring pork over progress.

While the Senate authorization bill left intact the (relatively paltry) fifteen million dollars (less than a tenth of a percent of the entire NASA budget) for the program next year, intended to be leveraged to actually allow the purchase of rides for NASA researchers, the House cut it to a trivial million dollars. Barely enough to even work out the issues with the concept, such as payload interface design and how to assess the reliability and safety of the competing providers. Fortunately, the final Senate appropriations bill (and appropriations, not authorization, is the bill that really counts) continues to contain the original NASA request of fifteen million, and the House appropriators voted this week to match it.

But Alan Stern, the former NASA associate administrator (now at Southwest Research Institute) who put together the Boulder conference in February, wants to put a stake through the heart of the notion of cutting the budget. On Facebook today, he sent out a call to everyone interested to call Congress today to kill HR5781, the House authorization bill that would do so, and support the Senate version.

Of course, it may all be moot, at least for now, because the ranking member of the House committee that oversees NASA appropriations, Frank Wolf (R-VA), thinks that it’s unlikely that there will even be an appropriations bill this year. Instead, there will probably be a continuing resolution into the next Congress, which will deal with it next year, when Wolf is likely to become chairman of the committee if the Republicans take back the House. So the suborbital saga is likely to continue, unresolved, for months.