Bringing Space Launches Back to America

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Later today, NASA astronaut Steve Swanson will liftoff towards the International Space Station, not from the Space Coast of Florida or some other American spaceport, but from Kazakhstan on a Russian spacecraft.    And unfortunately, the plan put forward by the Obama Administration to address this situation has been stymied by some in Congress.     

Since the retirement of the Space Shuttle – a decision made in 2004 – the United States has been dependent on the Russians to get our astronauts to the International Space Station.   Recognizing that this was unacceptable, President Obama has requested in NASA’s budget more than $800 million each of the past 5 years to incentivize the American aerospace industry to build the spacecraft needed to launch our astronauts from American soil.     Had this plan been fully funded, we would have returned American human spaceflight launches – and the jobs they support – back to the United States next year.    With the reduced level of funding approved by Congress, we’re now looking at launching from U.S. soil in 2017.

Budgets are about choices.  The choice moving forward is between fully funding the President’s request to bring space launches back to American soil or continuing to send millions to the Russians.  It’s that simple. The Obama Administration chooses to invest in America – and we are hopeful that Congress will do the same.

Over the past few years, two U.S. companies, Orbital Sciences and SpaceX, have demonstrated a new way of partnering NASA with the U.S. aerospace industry, providing more bang for the taxpayer buck in space.  There have already been five private spacecraft visits to the ISS with the Dragon and Cygnus capsules – and another one is slated to launch in just a few days.  At the end of last year, SpaceX launched a commercial satellite—a global industry worth nearly $190 billion per year—from Florida for the first time in four years.  One study estimated that if NASA had procured this launcher and capsule using a more traditional contracting method, it could have been about three times the cost of this new public-private partnership approach.

NASA has already returned ISS cargo resupply missions to America using these two companies, bringing space launches and jobs back to our shores – and we are using the same model send our astronauts to the space station.  Three American companies – Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX – are developing spacecraft and competing to replace the Space Shuttle and launch American astronauts within the next three years. We are betting on American innovation and competition to help lead us into a new era of space exploration.  As President Obama has said, this is “a capture the flag moment for [U.S.] commercial space flight.”

 Earlier this month, the President proposed a $17.5 billion fiscal year 2015 budget for NASA.  This includes $848 million for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program and supports the Administration’s commitment that NASA be a catalyst for the growth of a vibrant American commercial space industry.  It also keeps us on target to ending our reliance on the Russians for transporting our astronauts to and from space, and frees NASA to carry out even more ambitious missions beyond low-Earth orbit, including a mission to redirect and visit an asteroid and a human mission to Mars in the 2030s.  The International Space Station—which the Obama Administration just extended to at least 2024—remains our springboard to going beyond the Moon and exploring deep space for the first time. 

The American commercial space flight industry is boosting our economy and creating thousands of good paying jobs.  More than a dozen states in the U.S. are trying to build spaceports, hoping to help foster the next job-creating, innovation-based industry in their areas.

With such strong economic potential, it is no wonder that this approach has garnered bipartisan support. House Majority Whip Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) recently noted, “Support for U.S. commercial space will lead to American astronauts flying on American-made rockets from American soil.”  He added, “That is exceptionalism that both parties can get behind.”

It is important to note that NASA continues to cooperate successfully with Russia on International Space Station (ISS) activities.  But even as the “space race” has evolved over the past 50 years from competition to collaboration with Russia, NASA is rightfully focused now more than ever on returning our astronauts to space aboard American rockets – launched from U.S. soil – as soon as possible.