NASA’s decision to shift from a fixed-price contract for the next phase of its commercial crew development effort back to a Space Act Agreement (SAA), like that used in the first two rounds of the program, has resulted in a range of reactions. Much of the industry either directly involved in the program or otherwise supporting it, who fought the move away from SAAs this summer, endorsed the move. Meanwhile, some key members of Congress expressed concern about increased risk with this revised approach.
“This is a surprising victory for common sense within NASA in getting the most benefit for the country out of a limited Commercial Crew budget,” concluded the Space Access Society in a statement released shortly after Thursday morning’s announcement. That organization had argued that a switch to contracts based on Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) “was likely to fatally increase Commercial Crew Program costs and timelines.”
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) also endorsed the NASA move, citing NASA’s desire to promote competition by funding at least two companies in this upcoming and future phases of the program. “Competition is the key to the Commercial Crew Program, and we are pleased to see that NASA is continuing to promote competition,” CSF executive director Alex Saltman said.
The chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), was less enthused with the shift, citing a potential for increased risk because, under an SAA, NASA cannot direct companies to meet specific requirements. Hall suggested that NASA accelerate the competition by perhaps doing away with the competition that industry appears eager to support. “In order to reduce risk and cost, and to minimize further schedule slips, it would be my hope that two commercial companies would team together to jointly develop a cost-effective and safe launch system,” he said in a statement.
The committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), also expressed concerns about increased risk under the SAA approach in a separate statement. “I am concerned that NASA’s plan does not appear to contain sufficient margins and other risk reduction measures to give Congress confidence that it has a high probability of successfully meeting the objective of providing safe and cost-effective commercial crew transportation to and from the International Space Station by 2016 or even 2017,” she said.
Also yesterday, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its own report on NASA’s commercial crew program, citing concerns about budget levels. Noting that the funding levels are about half of what was originally projected, “NASA’s ability to execute its approach as currently planned is unlikely.” (In the context of the report, “as currently planned” refers to the agency’s prior plans for a FAR-based contract, not the shift to SAAs announced Thursday morning.) That would force NASA to support perhaps a single contractor, increasing programmatic risks. The report recommended that NASA reassess the program before going forward with the RFP for the Integrated Design Phase contract—which is exactly what NASA did, concluding that it would shift back to SAAs.