NASA, Congress Reach Accord on Commercial Crew Program

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According to the Orlando Sentinel, NASA and Congress have reached a deal on how to proceed with the commercial crew program that provides government subsidies to pay for the development of private spacecraft.

NASA will pay for two commercial spacecraft and partially for a third

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., the chairman of the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA funding, has described the accord in a news release. NASA will select the number of competitors from the current four -- SpaceX, Boeing, Blue Origin and Sierra Nevada -- to two. A third competitor will be picked for partial funding as a fallback in case both of the main competing companies run into difficulties developing a space craft on time and on budget.

Congressional concerns addressed

Previously, according to Wolf's statement, Congress had been concerned NASA was funding too many companies with too little funds, therefore unacceptably exposing the American taxpayer. Originally, Congress had proposed NASA down select to two competitors, one main company to be fully funded and one fallback company to be partially funded in case of a failure of the main competing company.

NASA concerned addressed

NASA had maintained such a down select would remove price competition from the commercial crew program, thus creating the potential for cost overruns. By allowing two main competitors after the next down select, the accord announced by Rep. Wolf would seem to address this concern.

Commercial crew to go to a Financial Acquisition Regulation arrangement

NASA had been operating the commercial crew program under a Space Act Agreement arrangement that involved a minimal of oversight of the commercial competitors. Companies such as SpaceX were conducting a development program that involved specific goals, the achievement of which would be signed off by NASA but were allowed to use more of their own discretion as to how to achieve these goals.

Now, with the cargo phase of the program nearing completion due to the successful mission of the SpaceX Dragon to the ISS and the upcoming mission of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft, Congress is demanding that the far more stringent Financial Acquisition Regulation system be used for the crewed phase of the program. FAR will involve greater NASA oversight, with reporting requirements, and tests have to be achieved before a spacecraft is certified for flight.

Astronaut safety an issue

Wolf mentions the main reason for going to a FAR system is the safety of astronauts who would ride in future commercial spacecraft is a concern to Congress. Congress is keen to avoid a repetition of the Challenger and Columbia disasters that destroyed crewed spacecraft and the crews they were carrying.

Mark R. Whittington is the author of Children of Apollo and The Last Moonwalker. He has written on space subjects for a variety of periodicals, including The Houston Chronicle, The Washington Post, USA Today, the L.A. Times, and The Weekly Standard.

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