On the eve of the full House Appropriations Committee’s markup of the Commerce, Justice, Science (CJS) appropriations bill, the committee released its draft report accompanying the bill, which includes additional details and policy direction for the agencies funded by the legislation. While the bill itself included no specifics about NASA’s commercial crew program, the report does call for significant changes for the program.
“The Committee supports the goal of achieving independent and redundant access to the International Space Station (ISS) but remains concerned about many aspects of NASA’s approach to the commercial crew development program,” the report states on page 69. Those areas of concern include NASA’s high projected overall costs for the program ($4.868 billion) and “insufficient safeguards” for the government regarding intellectual and physical property that, the report claims, runs the “risk of repeating the government’s experience from last year’s bankruptcy of the solar energy firm Solyndra.” In addition, the committee claims the program’s goal of establishing an American capability to access the ISS as soon as possible is “potentially inconsistent” with the goal of also developing a new industry, and that there’s no detailed plan for the eventual shift from Space Act Agreements to Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) based contracts.
The committee report offers a solution to most of all of those issues: limiting future awards to either a single company or two companies in a “leader-follower” arrangement where one company would get the majority of the funding. Those awards would also be done under FAR-based contracts. Doing this, the report claims, would reduce the total costs of the program and free up money for other NASA priorities. “In a climate of decreasing non-defense discretionary spending, the Committee does not believe that the Administration’s proposed budget runout for commercial crew is sustainable.”
The report is not the first time House appropriators have proposed strictly limiting competition in future phases of the commercial crew program. In a hearing in March, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, asked presidential science advisor John Holdren if it made sense to combine the existing commercial crew competitors into a single “star team”. Later last month Wolf also quizzed NASA administrator Charles Bolden on limiting the commercial crew program to no more than two companies.
In response to the report language, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) issued a statement praising the funding for the commercial crew program ($500 million) but expressing concern about the limited number of competitors and FAr-based contracts. “It is best to leave decisions on program management to the NASA human spaceflight professionals who have access to all the information and have worked closely with all the competing companies,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, the former astronaut who became president of the CSF last month. “If the language in the report were applied to the current round of competition, it would result in a significant delay in restoring U.S. human access to orbit.”
The only other part of NASA’s budget where the report goes into the same level of detail is NASA’s planetary sciences program. It directs NASA “to promptly submit its [Mars] Next Decade mission concept to the NRC for evaluation,” a reference to the restructured Mars program included in the budget, in order to see if it complies with the direction in last year’s planetary decadal survey that put a Mars mission as the top flagship priority provided it led to sample return. If the NRC finds it doesn’t the funds would go instead to begin work on a Europa orbiter (the second-ranked flagship in the decadal).
The full House Appropriations Committee will markup the CJS bill at 10 am Thursday.