This week, NASA announced a change in the way it will procure the development of new commercial crew transportation systems to launch astronauts to the International Space Station. While the change in approach may at first seem minor, a mere administrative detail, it has significant ramifications for how NASA and industry will work together, and signals NASA's entry into uncertain and difficult waters as it tries to chart a course that will take its astronauts back to orbit.
Money is the central issue. In the current "dynamic budget environment," NASA cannot be certain what money it will receive from Congress in the coming years. For the current fiscal year (FY2012), NASA requested $850 million for the commercial crew effort, but Congress provided only $406 million.
Given less than half the money requested, NASA officials have been forced to re-think the program. The agency had planned to release next Monday an RFP (Request for Proposals) in its Commercial Crew Development (CCDev) program. The intent was to award fixed-price contracts to the commercial firms competing to build new systems to carry humans to space. Instead, NASA will continue to use Space Act Agreements (more on SAAs below) to contract for the development.
The result of this reduction in funding is that the target date for the United States to regain the capability to send astronauts to space has been pushed back another year, from 2016 to 2017. NASA will have to extend its contract for seats on the Russian Soyuz and negotiate for another year of hitching rides to space. Prospects for next year look even grimmer, due to continuing economic problems and the failure of the congressional "supercommittee" to find a way out of the morass.
The space agency does not want to try to compete, award, and monitor fixed-price contracts while their budget is constantly changing. It might be like trying to juggle bowling pins while walking on a narrow balance beam -- it can be done, but it is oh, so difficult. Space Act Agreements are more flexible, with money paid out when the companies reach specified milestones.
A Space Act Agreement (SAA) is a type of contract that is not subject to Federal Acquisition Regulations and provides NASA with great flexibility to engage entities to develop innovative concepts. NASA received the authority to enter into such agreements as part of the original legislation that created NASA in 1958 -- often referred to as the NASA Space Act of 1958, hence the term Space Act Agreements.
Compared to contracts that adhere to Federal Acquisition Regulations, SAAs give NASA less control over the companies' work, which the companies feel frees them to pursue creative new approaches to getting the job done. NASA hopes their money will go farther with the more flexible SAAs.
Others, like Rep. Ralph Hall, chair of the House of Representatives' Science, Space and Technology Committee, which oversees NASA, worry about the safety of launch systems not developed under strict NASA control. He would also like to see NASA "down select" from the four companies now competing to two contenders, and then have those two combine forces on one system. Meanwhile, NASA is hoping that competition will bring down the price of launching people to orbit.
For space exploration, it's another change, another delay, with the certainty of more to come. There will be less money to go around, and NASA will be expected to do more with less.
But there is hope: the more relaxed SAA procurement might well trigger more innovation from private companies and the continued competition could bring down costs.
We need hope.