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House Science Committee Discusses Developments in NASA's Commercial Crew Acquisition Strategy

Aline D. McNaull
Number 124 - September 28, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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On September 14, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held a hearing to review NASA’s rationale to award $1.113 billion to three companies to develop competing concepts for a human space transportation launch system.  The Committee was particularly interested to hear about NASA’s considerations of cost and safety implications regarding recent decisions about the selection of those three companies and wanted to examine NASA’s ability to assess technical and safety requirements, given the unique nature of the Space Act Agreement.

According to a hearing charter prepared by Republican committee staff, NASA hopes that human spaceflight vehicles and systems developed by aerospace companies will become viable options to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS). Before NASA can purchase any transportation services from successful developers, it will have to certify that the systems are capable of performing NASA missions safely.  Because NASA will not own the vehicles, designs, or intellectual property, NASA will fund two contracts that conform to Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) to certify that systems meet technical and safety requirements before they fly. 

Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) was interested to know more about the safety of the new systems, specifically whether the recently developed systems are designed to be safer than the space shuttle or whether NASA is responding to different goals.  He mentioned that NASA “seeks to use government funds to stimulate aerospace companies to develop multiple, competing human spaceflight systems – systems for which NASA may be the only customer.”  Another issue that he raised was why NASA was proceeding in a way which gives aerospace companies so much flexibility.  “Redesigns will be costly and time consuming if important technical or safety requirements were not addressed up front.  If our nation is going to ask crews to explore space, it is our responsibility to do everything possible to ensure that those astronauts return to Earth safely.” 

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) echoed that level of apprehension stating that she was “concerned that NASA is not holding that program to the same standard as its other major acquisitions” also noting that “we don’t have any independent assessment of when these commercial systems will actually be able to start operational service to the International Space Station.”  She quoted the testimony of Admiral Joseph Dyer, Chair of the Aerospace Advisory Panel (ASAP), citing “it is hard not to read the concern couched in statements such as [he said] ‘lacking an independent cost estimate, we are uncertain as to affordability,’”  She continued to quote his testimony, ‘we arrive at this point in time with designs that are maturing before requirements, and where government and industry have not yet agreed on how winning designs will be accepted and certified’…. ‘NASA is just now undertaking to determine how systems will be certified to transport NASA astronauts.  This timing increases programmatic risk and has serious potential to impact safety.’”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) also questioned NASA’s plan to “carry out two distinct acquisition approaches in parallel.” She stated that “NASA has been unable to provide any evidence to indicate that the cost per seat to NASA will be any lower than the cost it incurs with the Russians.”  She was displeased that “while one of NASA’s stated goals for its commercial crew program is ‘achieving significant industry financial investment,’ based on Committee staff calculations the recently awarded Space Act Agreements demonstrate that the companies selected are only willing to contribute an average of just 11% of the cost of developing the commercial crew systems – systems that the government will then have to pay to use.” 

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) wanted to know “what this committee can expect going forward, whether astronaut safety is being compromised, and whether we can be assured that taxpayer funds are being used wisely.”  He noted that “last year, NASA expressed to this committee that adherence to NASA’s safety requirements could not be assured without using FAR-based contracts….  NASA has since reversed itself by going back to using [Space Act Agreements].”

William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for NASA Human Exploration and Operations, opened by attempting to reassure Members that NASA is “committed to launching our crew from US soil on spacecraft built by American Companies as soon as possible.  This program is good for NASA, the American taxpayer, and the US economy.”  He emphasized that the commercial crew program is an important component of US spaceflight and that there is a need for redundant transportation capability and rescue options.  Regarding development activities, he stated that commercial as well as traditional spaceflight are often discussed separately but both play an important role in human space flight.  He then described how space exploration beyond low-Earth orbit requires very different systems with different technical capabilities than current systems that are designed for low-Earth orbits. 

ASAP Chairman Dyer addressed the safety questions raised by Members stating that “the answer to the question must come from a balance between risk and reward and should reflect a consensus among the American people, the White House, and the Congress.  It is not our purpose or intent to answer the question ‘how safe is safe enough?’  It is instead to point out areas where we believe the stated requirements may not produce the requisite safety.” 

Dyer listed issues of concern including some that are long-standing or that have not been adequately addressed, he said, by NASA as well as concerns that are being adequately addressed by NASA but continue to be followed by ASAP.  He stated that NASA “has clearly communicated to partners and contractors that certification is a fundamental requirement of transitioning NASA and transporting NASA astronauts to and from space.” Issues where NASA is making progress but are still somewhat problematic include the establishment of solid requirements and promulgating how the agency will verify these requirements.  The establishment of a validation verification plan also falls in this category.  Issues that have yet to be adequately addressed by NASA include how waivers and deviations will be approved, who is accountable and how that process will be administered.  He also added that “from both Congress’s perspective and NASA’s perspective, budget and budget stability are a significant challenge.” 

On the issue of communication challenges under SAAs, Dyer stated “flexibility is universally the prime advantage; however, as design matures and begins taking shape, the partners seek reassurance that they are on a track that will lead to successful certification.  They pose specific questions about what NASA will eventually require of the designs, but NASA cannot provide those answers under the SAA construct.” 

During the question period, Members questioned the safety as well as the program cost.  Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) requested clarification on the benefit to the contractors while Edwards asked the panelists to discuss the projected path forward of the program given the present budget constraints.   Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) wanted clarification of program delivery date as well as the percentage of funding that comes from private companies versus NASA. 

Members on both sides seemed concerned throughout the hearing about a wide variety of issues relating to this program.  NASA’s shift to SAAs from the planned FAR-based contract and its current pursuit of parallel SAA and FAR-based contracts seemed troubling as was the lack of defined cost estimates.  Following Gerstenmaier’s comments that NASA is hoping to get the $525 million funding level in the Senate appropriations bill and the President’s anticipated request for $830 million per year in FY2014 and beyond, Edwards seemed to represent the sentiment of both Democratic and Republican Members as she responded with “I strongly suggest, especially in this [funding] environment, to pin an estimate of completion of an activity based on a ‘hope’ [for full funding levels], will be a real challenge, I think for the agency.”

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics