House Science Committee Discusses Developments in NASA's Commercial Crew Acquisition Strategy

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Publication date: 
28 September 2012

On September 14, the House Science, Space and Technology  Committee held a hearing to review NASA’s rationale to award $1.113 billion to  three companies to develop competing concepts for a human space transportation  launch system.  The Committee was  particularly interested to hear about NASA’s considerations of cost and safety  implications regarding recent decisions about the selection of those three companies  and wanted to examine NASA’s ability to assess technical and safety  requirements, given the unique nature of the Space Act Agreement.

According to a hearing charter prepared by Republican  committee staff, NASA hopes that human spaceflight vehicles and systems  developed by aerospace companies will become viable options to ferry astronauts  to the International Space Station (ISS). Before NASA can purchase any  transportation services from successful developers, it will have to certify  that the systems are capable of performing NASA missions safely.  Because NASA will not own the vehicles,  designs, or intellectual property, NASA will fund two contracts that conform to  Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) to certify that systems meet technical  and safety requirements before they fly. 

Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) was interested to know more  about the safety of the new systems, specifically whether the recently  developed systems are designed to be safer than the space shuttle or whether  NASA is responding to different goals.   He mentioned that NASA “seeks to  use government funds to stimulate aerospace companies to develop multiple,  competing human spaceflight systems – systems for which NASA may be the only  customer.”  Another issue that he  raised was why NASA was proceeding in a way which gives aerospace companies so  much flexibility.  “Redesigns will be costly and time consuming if important technical or  safety requirements were not addressed up front.  If our nation is going to ask crews to  explore space, it is our responsibility to do everything possible to ensure  that those astronauts return to Earth safely.” 

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) echoed that level of apprehension  stating that she was “concerned that NASA  is not holding that program to the same standard as its other major acquisitions” also noting that “we don’t have any  independent assessment of when these commercial systems will actually be able  to start operational service to the International Space Station.”  She quoted the testimony of Admiral Joseph Dyer,  Chair of the Aerospace Advisory Panel (ASAP), citing “it is hard not to read the concern couched in statements such as [he  said] ‘lacking an independent cost estimate, we are uncertain as to  affordability,’”  She continued to  quote his testimony, ‘we arrive at this  point in time with designs that are maturing before requirements, and where  government and industry have not yet agreed on how winning designs will be  accepted and certified’…. ‘NASA is just now undertaking to determine how  systems will be certified to transport NASA astronauts.  This timing increases programmatic risk and  has serious potential to impact safety.’”

Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) also  questioned NASA’s plan to “carry out two  distinct acquisition approaches in parallel.” She stated that “NASA has been unable to provide any  evidence to indicate that the cost per seat to NASA will be any lower than the  cost it incurs with the Russians.”  She  was displeased that “while one of NASA’s  stated goals for its commercial crew program is ‘achieving significant industry  financial investment,’ based on Committee staff calculations the recently  awarded Space Act Agreements demonstrate that the companies selected are only  willing to contribute an average of just 11% of the cost of developing the  commercial crew systems – systems that the government will then have to pay to  use.” 

Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) wanted to know “what this committee can expect going  forward, whether astronaut safety is being compromised, and whether we can be  assured that taxpayer funds are being used wisely.”  He noted that “last year, NASA expressed to this committee that adherence to NASA’s  safety requirements could not be assured without using FAR-based contracts….  NASA has since reversed itself by going back  to using [Space Act Agreements].”

William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for NASA Human  Exploration and Operations, opened by attempting to reassure Members that NASA  is “committed to launching our crew from  US soil on spacecraft built by American Companies as soon as possible.  This program is good for NASA, the American  taxpayer, and the US economy.”  He  emphasized that the commercial crew program is an important component of US  spaceflight and that there is a need for redundant transportation capability and  rescue options.  Regarding development  activities, he stated that commercial as well as traditional spaceflight are  often discussed separately but both play an important role in human space  flight.  He then described how space  exploration beyond low-Earth orbit requires very different systems with  different technical capabilities than current systems that are designed for  low-Earth orbits. 

ASAP Chairman Dyer addressed the safety questions raised  by Members stating that “the answer to  the question must come from a balance between risk and reward and should  reflect a consensus among the American people, the White House, and the  Congress.  It is not our purpose or  intent to answer the question ‘how safe is safe enough?’  It is instead to point out areas where we  believe the stated requirements may not produce the requisite safety.” 

Dyer listed issues of concern including some that are  long-standing or that have not been adequately addressed, he said, by NASA as  well as concerns that are being adequately addressed by NASA but continue to be  followed by ASAP.  He stated that NASA “has clearly communicated to partners and  contractors that certification is a fundamental requirement of transitioning  NASA and transporting NASA astronauts to and from space.” Issues where NASA  is making progress but are still somewhat problematic include the establishment  of solid requirements and promulgating how the agency will verify these  requirements.  The establishment of a  validation verification plan also falls in this category.  Issues that have yet to be adequately  addressed by NASA include how waivers and deviations will be approved, who is  accountable and how that process will be administered.  He also added that “from both Congress’s perspective and NASA’s perspective, budget and  budget stability are a significant challenge.” 

On the issue of communication challenges under SAAs, Dyer  stated “flexibility is universally the  prime advantage; however, as design matures and begins taking shape, the  partners seek reassurance that they are on a track that will lead to successful  certification.  They pose specific  questions about what NASA will eventually require of the designs, but NASA  cannot provide those answers under the SAA construct.” 

During the question period, Members questioned the safety  as well as the program cost.  Rep. Steven  Palazzo (R-MS) requested clarification on the benefit to the contractors while Edwards  asked the panelists to discuss the projected path forward of the program given  the present budget constraints.   Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) wanted clarification  of program delivery date as well as the percentage of funding that comes from  private companies versus NASA. 

Members on both sides seemed concerned throughout the  hearing about a wide variety of issues relating to this program.  NASA’s shift to SAAs from the planned  FAR-based contract and its current pursuit of parallel SAA and FAR-based  contracts seemed troubling as was the lack of defined cost estimates.  Following Gerstenmaier’s comments that NASA  is hoping to get the $525 million funding level in the Senate appropriations  bill and the President’s anticipated request for $830 million per year in  FY2014 and beyond, Edwards seemed to represent the sentiment of both Democratic  and Republican Members as she responded with “I strongly suggest, especially in this [funding] environment, to pin  an estimate of completion of an activity based on a ‘hope’ [for full funding  levels], will be a real challenge, I think for the agency.”