Editorial | Meddling Threatens Commercial Crew

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A Senate proposal to give NASA’s traditionally underfunded commercial crew program its biggest appropriation to date next year comes with a big string attached in the form of stricter financial reporting requirements. 

The Senate version of the 2015 appropriations bill for NASA includes $805 million for NASA’s effort to nurture development of privately operated crew transportation services to the international space station. That sum, while less than the $850 million NASA says it needs next year, is more generous than the $785 million proposed in the House version of the bill. 

But the Senate measure also includes a provision requiring strict adherence by the program to Federal Acquisition Regulation rules designed to ensure that the government gets a fair price from contractors. Inserted by Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the provision specifically would bar NASA from waiving FAR 15.403-4, which requires contractors to provide certified cost and pricing data, for the upcoming final development phase of the commercial crew program. 

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a problem.

A key rationale for commercializing astronaut transport is that the private sector, if relieved of some of the burdensome reporting and oversight requirements of traditional government aerospace programs, will come up with a solution more quickly and at less cost than otherwise would be the case. The approach seems to be having success in the case of cargo transport, where two companies, after receiving development assistance from NASA, are now resupplying the international space station under service contracts with the agency.

Currently, three companies are vying to transport crews to the station under a similar contracting scheme. NASA intends to select at least two of these companies this summer for funding support that would carry their concepts through full-scale development and first flight. The agency would then follow up with service contracts for crewed missions beginning in 2017.

Granted, there is no cargo as precious as human beings, and this likely will require layers of oversight beyond what NASA is applying to its commercial cargo program. 

But it is unclear what pricing certification requirements have to do with safety.

In a statement released June 3, Mr. Shelby, the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the measure was all about maintaining budgetary transparency. “We must ensure that taxpayers are getting the best value for their dollar and I believe that this language will make that happen,” he said.

Mr. Shelby, as everyone knows, is a staunch supporter of NASA’s Space Launch System, which is being developed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama and would receive $1.7 billion next year under the Senate bill. That’s $350 million more than the White House requested and $100 million more than proposed by the House.

In justifying the increase, the report accompanying the bill cites the need to keep SLS on schedule for a 2017 debut. But NASA program officials more recently said the biggest challenge to meeting that schedule is not the heavy-lift rocket but its payload, the Orion crew capsule, which is being developed in parallel. 

Given that, plus the fact that spending to date on SLS, which still has no agreed upon destination, is approaching $6 billion, it is difficult to believe Mr. Shelby’s driving concern is ensuring value for taxpayers. 

What his bill language does have the potential to do, should it become law, is hamstring the only credible U.S. effort to restore independent access to the space station by forcing the competitors to comply with cumbersome accounting requirements. This is just the sort of thing the commercial crew program was designed to circumvent.

The measure also could conceivably tilt the competitive playing field in favor of Boeing, which as an established NASA and Defense Department contractor is well versed in, and equipped for, FAR compliance. The same cannot be said for the other commercial crew contenders, Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Sierra Nevada Space Systems.

NASA and the White House have been guilty at times of overstating the advantages of commercializing U.S. crew operations in low Earth orbit. The notion that non-NASA customers will help defray the cost of developing and operating crew transportation services remains just that, for example. That reality weakens NASA’s already dubious case for nurturing and maintaining at least two commercial crew taxi services.

But commercialization unquestionably offers a way around some of the byzantine regulations that tend to slow traditional government acquisition programs to a very expensive crawl. Besides, NASA already has gone too far down the commercial path on crew transport to saddle the program with new requirements that could set back the competition. 

Mr. Shelby’s measure should be stricken from the appropriations legislation before it has any chance to sap the benefits from, and perhaps even upend, a program that is poised to enter its most crucial phase.