By Irene Klotz
CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (Reuters) - NASA is pressing ahead with a program to fly its astronauts on commercial spaceships despite budget uncertainties that threaten to undermine a heated competition for its business.
Since 2010, when the U.S. space agency begin partnering with private companies interested in developing space taxis, and May 2014, when the current phase of the so-called Commercial Crew initiative ends, NASA expects to have spent about $1.5 billion on the program.
The Obama administration is requesting $821 million for the program for the 2014 fiscal year that begins on October 1. Congress previously halved the administration's requests to $406 million in 2012 and $498 million in 2013.
The bulk of the funds now goes to two firms, Boeing Co and privately owned Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, both of which are developing seven-person capsules. NASA also is backing a winged spaceship called Dream Chaser being developed by privately owned Sierra Nevada Corp.
"The biggest risk to the program is prematurely eliminating competition," Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight development at NASA Headquarters, told an advisory committee meeting on Tuesday.
"The goal of the Commercial Crew program is safe, reliable and cost-effective human space transportation to low-Earth orbit. Competition gives you a good price, but the partners know that safety and reliability are important criteria for NASA so they are battling to be the safest, to be the most reliable and to be the most cost-effective," he said.
"There are still some uncertainties about each one of these systems, so if we were to go all-in on one right now, I would be very nervous about that," McAlister added.
Unlike traditional cost-plus-award fees contracts, NASA's space taxi developers are paid fixed amounts and only after they achieve pre-determined technical milestones. Companies also are required to share development costs.
The initiative is intended to give NASA a U.S. alternative for flying astronauts to the International Space Station, a $100 billion research complex that orbits about 250 miles above Earth, by 2017.
With the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, the U.S. space agency is dependent on Russia to transport station crews, a service that currently costs more than $62 million per seat.
NASA created similar partnerships with SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp for station cargo transportation, another service previously provided by the government-owned and operated space shuttles.
So far, SpaceX has flown three times to the station. Orbital Sciences is slated for its debut test flight in September.
For NASA's $800 investment, the United States now has "two low-cost launch vehicles, two autonomous spacecraft capable of delivering cargo and two privately developed launch facilities. This will give us a very robust U.S. domestic cargo transportation capability," McAlister said.
SpaceX also has successfully sold its Falcon 9 rockets commercially, with about 50 missions on its manifest including 10 more station cargo resupply flights for NASA.
Companies vying to develop human space transports for NASA are slated learn more about the program's next phase during meetings on Thursday and Friday at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)