Congress, NASA

Policy obstacles cleared for COTS

Earlier this week the Government Accountability Office (GAO) denied a protest by Rocketplane Kistler (RpK) regarding the NASA COTS recompete. RpK had protested NASA’s use of a funded Space Act Agreement (the same type that RpK had, and then lost, last year when it failed to meet milestones in the agreement) for the COTS recompete, arguing that a more conventional procurement should instead be used. The GAO found that since COTS is not intended to “principally provide for the acquisition of goods and services for the direct benefit and use of NASA,” the agency is not required to follow conventional procurement processes and can instead use Space Act Agreements.

The RpK protest had prevented NASA from continuing with the COTS award process: language inserted into the omnibus appropriations bill passed in December directed NASA not to select a new contractor until all challenges are decided.” The GAO’s denial of RpK’s protest has satisfied Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who added that provision, Space News reported yesterday. [subscription required] NASA is apparently free to make one or more awards as early as next week: one of the companies identified as finalists, PlanetSpace, said it expects a decision on February 8, a week from Friday.

5 comments to Policy obstacles cleared for COTS

  • Much as I would have liked to see the Kistler vehicle get at least as far as flight testing, “nine lives” is enough even for a cat and it is time to move on. RpK’s spoilt child behavior since NASA made their quite reasonable decision has done nothing to help the entrepreneurial space industry. It may be sad, but I interpret this as good news.

    – Donald

  • BC

    I also agree with your assessment here. Its management’s incompetance not withstanding, I am sorry to see a good, viable design go to waste. The only shred of hope now, is if some Deep-Pockets: (a) buys the design, (b) changes the name (that “K”-moniker has gotta be cursed), (c) fires all the managers, and (d) just build & fly the sucker. For now, I hope NASA can move on without anymore interference, with its next set of choices – that could deliver more than powerpoint slides.

  • Anon

    If we had a $2-3 Billion COTS program, instead of the current miserly $500M COTS program, who here would not have given about $400M to Kistler (with $100M private matching required) in order to see this TSTO RLV fly?

    We could do some amazing things in space in this nation with slightly different budget priorities.

    We could funding half a dozen of these very innovative companies right now, and see a renaissance of truly exciting space development.

    - Anon

  • Al Fansome

    BC: The only shred of hope now, is if some Deep-Pockets: (a) buys the design, (b) changes the name (that “K”-moniker has gotta be cursed), (c) fires all the managers, and (d) just build & fly the sucker.

    You can’t fire all the technical managers and “just build & fly the sucker”. Kistler/RpK had very good technical management. They needed those managers to build and fly it. However, they did not have a business plan that closed, even with a $200 million NASA space act agreement. Furthermore, it was not a foregone conclusion that the most recent management could not find more “dumb money” to invest in RpK. The previous Chairman (Robert Wang) was able to find over $500 million of dumb money from Saudi Arabia and Asia. The new management could have repeated that feat, and almost did.

    Next, if they did find somebody with “deep pockets” (a Musk, Bezos or Beal, Allen figure) — who was not investing for pure financial returnes — RpK would not need the services of managers whose job it was to raise the private funding. In that case, they could (and would) lay them off.

    But you can’t waive a wand and find somebody with deep of pockets for invests for “philanthro-capitalist” reasons. By observation, we can see that people with that much money generally prefer to design the company from ground up. If you look at recent history — from Beal, to Musk, to Bezos, to Bigelow — if they get excited about space, they tend to start their own company, and begin from a clean sheet of paper, rather than investing hundreds of millions in somebody else’s company.

    ANON: If we had a $2-3 Billion COTS program, instead of the current miserly $500M COTS program, who here would not have given about $400M to Kistler (with $100M private matching required) in order to see this TSTO RLV fly?

    With a $400M space act agreement, RpK probably could have raised the remaining $100M. More specifically, apparently RpK had a $200+ million commitment from a Canadian fund (which I think was “dumb money”.) Kistler/RpK was very successful at raising private funds from overseas sources, which generally have a much different approach to investments and due diligence. In other words, they are in it for the financial returns, but they don’t do they same level of serious due diligence as American professionals. (Which is why I call it “dumb money”.)

    Back to your original proposal — I would support a larger COTS program, and (in that case) I would have given RpK a larger amount of funding, as long as there was some significant matching requirement.

    Perhaps more importantly, I would require NASA to begin purchasing more of its space transportation services on a commercial firm-fixed-price basis. An existing proven market demand is critical to raising private investments.

    - Al

  • mestillhere

    So can anyone tell me, did the former chairman Robert Wang did a good job or was it a scam? I personally invested some money into the program and I just want to know the truth.

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