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NASA decision increases risk in commercial crew program

Posted: December 16, 2011

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NASA's decision to give up insight and influence in the design of privately-developed space vehicles could cause delays in the resumption of U.S. human spaceflight, officials said Thursday.

Artist's concept of a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft parachuting to splashdown in the ocean. Credit: SpaceX
A reduction in funding from NASA's expectation this year will also likely push back operational crewed missions of commercial spacecraft until 2017, according to Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator of the agency's human exploration and operations directorate.

Instead of fixed-price contracts, NASA will sign Space Act Agreements with commercial partners next summer to finance the design and development of spacecraft to ferry crews to the International Space Station.

NASA is using funded Space Act Agreements now with four firms working on capsules and space planes to deliver crews to the space station and return them to Earth. The agreements, worth nearly $316 million, will run out in May.

The agency has funded Space Act Agreements with Boeing Co., SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Blue Origin. NASA signed unfunded agreements with United Launch Alliance, ATK and Excalibur Almaz.

Gerstenmaier said the Space Act Agreements will offer a more flexible mechanism to partner with private companies, but it comes at the expense of NASA involvement in the day-to-day design, testing and development decisions by the commercial firms.

"The Space Act gives us a lot of flexibility, but it doesn't insure that we're going to get exactly what we need coming out the other side," Gerstenmaier said Thursday.

NASA's commercial crew program is receiving $406 million in fiscal year 2012, which runs through next Sept. 30. That's less than half of the agency's request of $850 million for the same period.

Not only does the budget reduction probably delay the onset of manned flights to the space station until 2017, but it also forced NASA to adjust its acquisition strategy. Traditional contracts would need to be renegotiated and rewritten if future budgets are beset with similar reductions.

"We needed to look at a different strategy if we wanted to keep this program moving forward," Gerstenmaier said.

A major reason for the switch to Space Act Agreements was to preserve competition among would-be commercial transportation providers. A crucial selling point of the commercial program, which makes NASA a customer of spaceflight services, is to fund multiple providers as long as possible to maintain competition and keep prices low.

"We would like to carry two providers, at a minimum, through this period, or actually more," Gerstenmaier said. "We think competition is a key piece."

Space Act Agreements require companies to finance a portion of the program with private capital, lessening the cost to the government and allowing NASA to spread their limited resources among more firms, Gerstenmaier said.

"What really drove us here is the budget variability that we see in the future," Gerstenmaier said. "Although we can't specify the exact requirements [and] we can't dictate to the contractor what we want ... they can still make significant progress on their own."

In the long run, the strategy should get NASA the most for its money, but it increases the risk of delays in the future.

NASA was poised to release a request for proposals Monday for the Integrated Design Contract, a 21-month agreement with companies to advance their projects almost to the point of a critical design review, when a craft's design is frozen and is ready to move into certification and testing.

According to Gerstenmaier, the Space Act Agreements will run about the same length as the planned fixed-price contracts, taking the commercial crew program into early 2014 once the agreements are signed next summer.

In 2014, NASA will issue contracts for construction, certification and integrated testing of the space vehicles.

"There will be some potential risk at this end of this phase when we get ready to go into the contract phase that they may not meet our needs," Gerstenmaier said.

But NASA has released detailed certification requirements, so it's up to the contractors to do their best to meet those standards before competing for NASA business.

"This is probably as far as we go with Space Acts, but I wouldn't definitively say that at this point," Gerstenmaier said.

NASA will also need to purchase more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for U.S. astronauts to fly to the space station in 2016 and 2017. The current agreement expires in the spring of 2016 at a cost of about $63 million per seat.

The agency needs a Congressional waiver to the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act for the seat purchase, which would be prohibited under current law.