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NASA: Competition at core of commercial crew program

Posted: May 2, 2012

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NASA managers argued Tuesday a proposal by lawmakers to immediately select a single provider for commercial crew transportation services would undermine the agency's strategy of reducing the cost of space travel through private industry.

File photo of Ed Mango (left) and Brent Jett (right), manager and deputy manager of NASA's commercial crew program. Credit: NASA/KSC
Officials are in the middle of evaluating industrial bids for the commercial crew program's next phase, with a goal of selecting at least two companies by August to continue developing rockets and spacecraft for the next two years.

NASA plans to award multiple industry teams each between $300 million and $500 million under agreements set to run until at least May 2014.

But a House budget bill would direct NASA to immediately choose one provider and sign a development contract. The House spending plan provides $500 million to NASA's commercial crew program in fiscal year 2013, which begins Oct. 1.

A Senate appropriations bill gives NASA a $525 million mark for commercial crew, but it does not call for a shift in procurement strategy. Both funding levels are less than NASA's request for $830 million in fiscal 2013.

The Senate and House budgets must pass their respective bodies, and their differences must be sorted out in a conference committee.

This year's commercial crew budget is set at $406 million, about half of NASA's request. The less-than-requested budget caused NASA to adjust its schedule for the start of operational astronaut flights to the space station from 2016 until 2017.

Ed Mango, manager of NASA's commercial crew program, said Tuesday a "downselect" to a sole company could double the cost of fielding a privately-built human transportation system.

"We need competition as long as possible. The price to go with one [provider] starting today, and then all the way through certification and into services, is at least twice what it would be if you had competition at least as long as possible," Mango said.

Mango and other officials spoke with the NASA Advisory Council's commercial space committee Tuesday.

House appropriators wrote an immediate downselect to one commercial crew firm would reduce the program's projected $4.8 billion cost, but NASA officials said such a move would move the cost in the opposite direction.

"If we get narrowed down to one [provider] now, we're kind of back into the same old way of doing business, and that's why a system costs $8 billion to build," said Brent Jett, NASA's deputy program manager for commercial crew.

According to Mango, a budget reduction now would delay the beginning of commercial crew service to the International Space Station, extending U.S. reliance on Russia for astronaut access to space.

Stretching out development would lengthen the gap in U.S. human spaceflight capability and would ultimately make the program more expensive, according to Mango.

"If we did that, then the overall total cost would be more," Mango said. "The area under the curve is going to go up."

NASA astronauts and SpaceX employees in the interior of a mock-up of the Dragon spacecraft, SpaceX's proposed human capsule. Credit: SpaceX/Roger Gilbertson
Phil McAlister, head of NASA's commercial spaceflight office in Washington, said the agency has "walked the walk" in its commitment to competition, citing a decision in December to switch from traditional federal government contracts to Space Act Agreements for the program's next phase, known as CCiCap, or Commercial Crew Integrated Capability.

NASA changed to Space Act Agreements because they allow more flexibility to pay multiple companies to continue development with less funding. The agreements also require industry to supply private capital to go toward the effort.

"That [decision] was deliberately because we felt like, with the previous strategy and the previous budget, we might have been forced to only select one [company]," McAlister said.

Mango said competition also encourages innovation, adding partners have put in more private money in previous commercial crew development rounds to accelerate testing in order to obtain a competitive advantage for future bids.

According to McAlister, NASA has not decided how many partners - two, three, or four - it will select for the CCiCap phase, which will fund projects through the completion of designs until the start of qualification testing.

NASA has ongoing funded agreements with Boeing Co., SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin. The companies expect to complete their milestones under their current agreements this summer, before NASA awards the next round of funding.

Each company is developing a human-rated spacecraft to launch on top of an expendable rocket.

"Competition is in everyone's interests," Mango said. "Going to one [provider] means your price for development, let alone services because we haven't figured that out yet, is probably at least double what it would be if you had at least some competition throughout some phase of the overall development."