In an about face blamed on a “dynamic budget environment”, NASA is switching back to Space Act Agreements (SAAs) for the next phase of its Commercial Crew program, the agency announced Thursday. NASA had planned to issue this coming Monday a request for proposals (RFP) for what was called the Integrated Design Phase of the program. Instead, it will switch back to SAAs, used in the first two rounds of the Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program, with details on timing to come in the next few weeks.
In a telecon Thursday morning with reporters, Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, said the limited funding available for commercial crew in 2012—$406 million instead of the requested $850 million—as well as uncertainty about future budgets, led to the decision to shift its procurement strategy. “In a dynamic budget environment, it makes it tough for us to deal with that budget fluctuation” when using fixed-price contracts, he said. “If we don’t get the funds that we anticipated, it makes it tough for us to negotiate the contract and inefficiency in renegotiating that contract.” That budget uncertainty in future years, he said, drove them to make the shift back to SAA.
The new SAAs will replace the Integrated Design Phase contracts, which had been intended to get system designs to the critical design review (CDR) level of the development. The goal of the new SAAs will also to get designs as close as possible to CDR, although Gerstenmaier warned that, since NASA cannot direct companies under an SAA like it can under a contract, “there is a risk there what we won’t get exactly what we anticipated.” However, he said that risk is mitigated in part by the publication of NASA requirements for crew transportation systems and later contracts for providing those services.
The decision comes several months after NASA announced its plans to switch from SAAs to a more conventional contract for the next commercial crew phase, despite strong feedback from much of industry not to do so. The rationale at the time was the need to direct companies to meet NASA requirements, something that NASA now hopes companies will do without explicit direction from the agency. While industry might support this move back to SAAs, Gerstenmaier said that NASA made this decision without consulting industry. “We really made this decision on our own,” he said, with budgets as the driving factor.
However, NASA did consult with Congress on this, he said, “and they kind of understand our position and they understand the logic behind why we made this shift.” (It’s worth noting that as recent as September the Senate directed NASA to limit its use of SAAs in future commercial crew procurements.) He added that NASA is also working with Congress on an extension to its existing Iran North Korea Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) waiver to allow it to continue purchasing Soyuz seats, as budgets will likely delay the entry of commercial crew systems into service to 2017.
Asked if this was as far as NASA could go with SAAs for the commercial crew effort, Gerstenmaier said this morning that he thought so, but “I wouldn’t definitively say that at this time.”