(Washington, DC) - Today, the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology held a hearing to examine the latest developments in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Commercial Crew Program, recent changes in NASA's acquisition strategy and the ramifications of those changes, and NASA's ability to execute this strategy. Testifying before the Committee were Mr. William H. Gerstenmaier, the Associate Administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA and Vice Admiral Joseph W. Dyer (Ret.), the Chair of the Congressionally chartered independent Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP).
The NASA Authorization Act of 2010 directed NASA to determine the most cost-effective means of procuring commercial crew transportation capabilities and provide Congress with a description of the agency's proposed procurement process. NASA issued its Commercial Crew Procurement System Review report in September 2011, which stated that the agency would be unable to levy its human spaceflight safety requirements under a Space Act Agreement (SAA). As a result, NASA indicated that it would use Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)-based contracts for the design, development, and certification of commercial crew transportation systems. However, in December 2011, NASA announced that it would not follow its previously announced acquisition strategy. Instead, NASA said it would use competitively awarded SAAs for the design and development phase of the commercial crew program. NASA cited funding uncertainty as the reason for its last-minute change. Last month, NASA announced the award of three SAAs for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap) design and development effort to the Boeing Company, Space Exploration Technologies Corporation, and Sierra Nevada Corporation. In addition, NASA defined its certification approach and updated its strategy for award of FAR-based contracts for the certification and services phases.
Rep. Donna F. Edwards, Ranking Member of the Technology and Innovation Subcommittee (D-MD), said in her opening statement, "In my capacity as a Member of this oversight Committee, I have a responsibility to scrutinize each of NASA's major projects to make sure that they are well planned and executable. NASA's commercial crew program has to be subjected to that same level of oversight if we are doing our jobs on this Committee. In that regard, I have to say that I am concerned that NASA is not holding that program to the same standard as its other major acquisitions. And make no mistake--this is a major acquisition for NASA... I am puzzled and a bit frustrated that NASA appears to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge the warning signs that this major program is not on a firm path to success at present."
Democratic Members discussed a number of issues related to the Commercial Crew Program. One key issue was the implications of NASA's shift to SAAs from the planned FAR-based contracts, as well as its new plan to pursue FAR-based contracts and SAAs in parallel. Other issues discussed included the lack of independent estimates of the cost and schedule to actually achieve operational commercial crew transportation services to the International Space Station (ISS); the impact on NASA's timetable of the likelihood of lower outyear funding than NASA is assuming in its plans; the mismatch in the cost-sharing by the companies and the government developing the systems; lack of a good basis for knowing how much NASA will be charged to use the commercial systems; and the continuing lack of clarity on the primary objective of the program--whether it is economic development or providing transportation for our astronauts to the ISS.
Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said in her statement for the record, "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 also have to pay to use. I'm not sure I can explain to my constituents why they should consider that a fair arrangement."
Ranking Member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, Jerry F. Costello (D-IL), said in his statement for the record, "Last year, NASA expressed to this committee that adherence to NASA's safety requirements could not be assured without using FAR-based contracts. NASA said that the risk of commercial partners' inability to meet its human-rating requirements could cause costly and time-consuming redesigns and pose safety concerns, thus requiring NASA to be more involved in the development of any commercial transportation system. As a result, NASA said Space Act Agreements could not be used. Because NASA has since reversed itself by going back to using SAAs, I am eager to hear...whether astronaut safety is being compromised, and whether we can be assured that taxpayer funds are being spent wisely."
In response to Mr. Gerstenmaier's comments that NASA is "hoping" to get the funding level ($525 million) in the Senate appropriations bill for fiscal year 2013, as well as get the President's request level of about $830 million per year in fiscal year 2014 and beyond, Ms. Edwards said, "I strongly suggest, especially in this [current funding] environment, to pin an estimate of completion of an activity based on a 'hope' [for full funding], will be a real challenge, I think, for the agency."
Vice Admiral Dyer echoed many of the Members' concerns. He said, "Many maintain that the freedom and flexibility of an SAA have enabled creativity and innovative design solutions and may have delivered greater value for money. That may be true. However, 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. We worry that the cart is ahead of the horse... In summary, in the Panel's view, NASA is being very creative and doing all it can to develop a commercial crew transportation capability on a very limited and potentially unstable budget. However, they unquestionably face a number of challenges in reaching the point where these systems can be confidently certified as being 'safe enough' for the astronauts that rely on this process to ensure their safety."
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