Dragon stares down Congress?

I spent way too much time trying to come up with a clever dragon title. Even spent a couple seconds thinking about Photoshopping a screenshot from this week’s Game of Thrones. You know, the one with the dragons?


While I was busy not seeing the transit of Venus, apparently Congress was actually seeing the light coming to its senses, sort of, when it comes to the space program. Rep. Frank Wolf, R-VA and the chairman of the House committee that oversees NASA’s budget, has reached a truce over Commercial Crew development program, in which he stops trying to gut the program and NASA agrees to do a bunch of stuff it was probably going to do anyway. The fact that it comes a week after one of the Commercial Crew contractors, SpaceX, successfully sent a spaceship (the Dragon) to resupply the International Space Station, probably isn’t a coincidence.

I’ll take good space news where I can get it, and this seems kind of overdue. Commercial Crew was such an obvious idea that I never really got why it was controversial in the first place. One of the reasons why the Shuttle program semi-failed was that it relied on one freakishly expensive vehicle to do absolutely everything NASA wanted to do in space, because NASA didn’t have the budget to build more than one spaceship at a time. If we really want to come up with a plan for getting us beyond low Earth orbit again, maybe we should actually let them focus on that — especially when multiple bidders are offering to put supplies and eventually people in LEO for cheap.

Fortunately, having an International space station means we could rely on other, cheaper spacecraft manufactured abroad to carry people and equipment in between Shuttle flights, and all the time now that the Shuttle’s been retired. But actually having an American vehicle that can carry people and equipment into space gives NASA some actual flexibility, and Commercial Crew is easily the most convenient option. As that article notes:

NASA Administrator Bolden has stated that the cuts have delayed access to the Space Station by American vehicles by at least a year, with this year’s cuts expected to delay American access again. In hearings, some of Wolf’s subcommittee members have seemed intent on using the coming Space Launch System (SLS) to ferry astronauts to the Space Station, even though this service would come at a price that’s about ten times higher.

I mean, I’m kind of sad that Obama decided to cancel the Constellation program (I’m sadder that Bush and Congress never bothered to fund it properly) but the Space Launch System is supposed to be the rocket that can take us to asteroids and Mars. Using it to fly people to the Space Station seems like it would force NASA to build another, less awesome version of the Shuttle.

There’s also a weird political angle here, where the Republicans seem intent on maintaining the weird state capitalism model of cost-plus contracts with massive government intrusion into the development process, while the Obama administration has doubled down on the idea of turning spacecraft construction into an actual commercial industry. I kind of love the idea that this debate might have been settled because Wolf and his colleagues woke up last week and realized how ridiculous their position was.


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