House lawmakers today quizzed NASA and space industry executives on the viability of a commercial market for human spaceflight, with some characterizing plans to fly astronauts on private space taxis as a giveaway to industry or unsafe.
"Some of us remain very concerned that the promise of commercial markets could put the government in the position of supporting or bailing out companies in order to preserve a national capability," said U.S. Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, chairman of the Committee on Science, Space and Technology.
U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, said a commercial market appeared to be "between minimal and non-existent."
Representatives from ATK, The Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp., SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, acknowledged there was no guarantee of a robust market, but said there were opportunities to fly non-NASA crews to planned private stations, fly foreign nationals or wealthy individuals, and perform satellite servicing.
Some committee members supported NASA's plan, which hopes to fly NASA crews from Florida to the International Space Station by late 2016 for as much or less money than the U.S. now pays Russia for the service.
The House has offered the least financial support so far, approving $312 million in 2012 compared to $500 million from the Senate. The Obama administration requested $850 million.
Even with $500 million next year, Bill Gerstenmaier, the head of NASA's human spaceflight programs, said the availability of a commercial system would likely be delayed from 2016 to 2017. He estimated the U.S. would pay Russia $480 million -- or $80 million per seat -- during that extra year.
The flights are expected to be the first of crews from the Space Coast following the shuttle's retirement this year. A giant rocket planned for exploration missions won't launch a crew before 2021.