Lost in Space: Is NASA Gambling Space Program on Unproven Companies?

Start-ups trusted to take cargo to space station, unproven in rocket business.

May 26, 2011 — -- Members of Congress Thursday signaled they are growing concerned with NASA's decision to bank on two commercial start-up companies to carry cargo, and possibly astronauts, to the International Space Station once the space shuttle program retires this summer.

NASA has committed billions of dollars and assigned the risky task of delivering supplies to the station to two companies that were unproven in the rocket business, but that have both promised to develop a less costly formula for travel to space -- California-based SpaceX and Virginia-based Orbital Sciences. Government auditors reported to Congress that both companies have experienced delays and, at least initially, both underestimated the amount of money it would take to begin launching rockets.

Rep. Ralph Hall, a Texas Republican, told members gathered at a hearing on commercial space program Thursday that he is worried NASA is relying too heavily on the two companies.

"NASA … is now gambling the future of space station on the success two very new launch systems," Hall told members of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. "I simply regret that there continues to be so much uncertainty about our nation's ability to reliably get cargo to Station with the final Shuttle flight now less than two months away."

With the Space Shuttle Endeavor currently docked with the space station, and only one more shuttle flight scheduled, NASA officials and outside experts have agreed that the storied American space program is about to enter a murky period known as The Gap. It will be the first time since 1981 that the U.S. will completely lack the ability, on its own, to put astronauts into space. And NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told ABC News he is working hard to limit the duration of the gap.

READ: NASA's Black Hole, Will U.S. Space Dominance End?

His strategy has been to focus NASA's energy on future plans for deep space exploration, while relying heavily on commercial outfits such as SpaceX to lift satellites into orbit and service the space station.

Senior executives from both companies told members of Congress Thursday they are confident in their ability to take on those tasks, and said they are on target to mount test launches of the rockets they are developing later this year. They predicted they will begin shuttling supplies to the space station in 2012.

Follow ABCNewsBlotter on Facebook

SpaceX President Gwynn Shotwell noted that when the company successfully launched a test flight last year, orbited a capsule around the earth, and recovered it upon reentry, it had accomplished something that had only previously been achieved by six nations, and never by a private company.

William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, told the committee members their plans, while ambitious, were realistic. At the same time, he tried to temper that optimism by reminding the House members that space travel, no matter how routine it may seem, is never easy, and they should expect some delays.

"Establishing a regular flight rate after the initial flights will not be easy," Gertenmaiar said. "I think both companies are well prepared to move forward. We're prepared for the problems that will occur. We anticipated these inevitable start up challenges associated with a technologically ambitious endeavor."

Those concerned about the risks of relying on commercial companies for space travel, Shotwell said, should keep in mind that the Falcon 9 rocket and its Dragon capsule "were each developed from a blank sheet to first launch in four and a half years for approximately $300 million each."

Several members, however, continued to voice their concerns about NASA's approach. Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo, a Mississippi Republican said he wanted the companies to be forthcoming about their progress, and about the costs of their endeavors.

"I want to remind NASA and the commercial partners that you are spending taxpayer money, and lots of it. So you will not be exempt from oversight and financial scrutiny," Palazzo said. "NASA has spent $1.25 billion over the last five years and it is my firm hope that before the year is out we will have real proof that this investment has been worthwhile."

Click Here for the Blotter Homepage.

Follow BrianRoss on Twitter