Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, has been critical of NASA’s commercial crew program, expressing his concerns about the program during hearings about the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal. In his role as subcommittee chairman, he incorporated language into the report accompanying the House version of his spending bill that would require NASA to use FAR-based contracts for future awards, rather than the Space Act Agreements (SAAs) NASA was planning to use for the next phase, called Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap), and also require NASA to select either a single company in that next phase or two companies in a “leader-follower” relationship where one company got the bulk of the funding. That language was criticized by both industry and the Obama Administration as being too limiting.
However, Wolf is now backing away from those provisions, announcing on Tuesday an agreement with NASA on the future administration of the commercial crew program. Wolf said NASA agreed to make no more than “2.5” awards under CCiCap (two “full” awards and one “partial” one), which can be done as SAAs. NASA agreed to vet the companies’ “financial health and viability” before making the CCiCap awards, and to ensure it has a “first right of refusal” for property developed under those awards. Future phases of the commercial crew program would be done as FAR-based contracts and not SAAs. Funding for the program would be “at or near” the $525 million in the current Senate version of the appropriations bill, up from the $500 million in the House bill.
Wolf said he reached this understanding with NASA administrator Charles Bolden “to prevent any disruption in the development of crew vehicles to return U.S. astronauts to ISS as quickly as possible”. However, this deal is clearly a win for NASA: it seemed unlikely NASA would make more than three CCiCap awards regardless of report language given the available funding, and it had already planned to transition from SAAs to FAR-based contracts in future phases of the program. The additional funding is also helpful, but as Bolden notes in a letter to Wolf on Monday confirming their understanding, funding for the program should be “as robust as possible” and closer to the administration’s request of nearly $830 million for FY13.
Bolden added a handwritten note to the end of his letter to Wolf: “Thanks for your willingness to take a risk in trusting our team. We have to maintain open lines of communication to move the nation forward. Your staff has been superb!” Those lines will likely remain open: Wolf says in his statement he will “continue to follow up with NASA to monitor the implementation of these understandings” for the remainder of this fiscal year and beyond.