The Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill remains in the Senate, after action on the bill stalled out on the Senate floor two weeks ago due to matters unrelated to NASA. The earliest debate on the bill could resume is early next week, although it’s unclear exactly when they’ll take up the bill again.
The absence of action, though, has not meant an absence of commentary about the bill, in particular a provision in report language accompanying the bill requiring “certified cost and pricing data” from companies receiving commercial crew and cargo contracts from NASA. As floor debate on the bill began two weeks ago, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), who requested that provision, defended it by arguing that it ensures “the price NASA has agreed to pay for vehicle development matches actual development expenditures.” Many in the commercial spaceflight industry, and advocates of that industry, opposed the language, arguing it would drive up costs.
In an op-ed in Space News this week, Eric Sterner of the Marshall Institute argues that, at first look, it makes sense to apply those cost requirements to the commercial crew program, since it is primarily funded by the government, which will also be the primary customer of those services. “Despite constant rhetoric to the contrary, there is nothing ‘commercial’ about the commercial crew program,” he writes.
Yet, he notes that such pricing data is not required for NASA’s existing contracts for crew transportation services from Russia, which “means is that the need for FAR-compliant cost and pricing data is not absolute, required above all other things.” The need to expedite development of commercial crew systems to end reliance on Russia and maximize their use over the remainder of the International Space Station’s lifetime calls for approaches that minimize the bureaucratic red tape associated with conventional contracting approaches, he argues, among other reasons. “When it comes to human spaceflight in the United States, NASA cannot pursue ‘business as usual’ approaches. It lacks funding and time for a traditional procurement or development program.”
Meanwhile, the Houston Chronicle takes a different, and more Texas-centric, approach to its criticism of Shelby’s report language in an editorial Tuesday. Shelby, the paper argues, “wants to drag companies like SpaceX back to Earth and force them to comply with NASA’s usual regulatory paperwork. This idea threatens to kill the goose that could lay the golden egg,” adding that Shelby is perhaps motivated to protect the Marshall Space Flight Center in his state.
“As fans of the Johnson Space Center, we can sympathize with Shelby’s desire to protect his constituents’ jobs against a perceived competitor. But Shelby’s policy is misguided,” the editorial continues. The editorial concludes by asking Texas’s two senators to fight back: “Texas’ own senators should go to bat for SpaceX and ensure that its multimillion dollar investment outside Brownsville doesn’t get tied up in Shelby’s red tape. Shelby is fighting for his state. Where are the Texans fighting for Texas?” The Brownsville reference is to the likely site of a future SpaceX commercial launch site, although it’s unlikely that facility will be used for commercial crew or cargo missions to the ISS.