WASHINGTON — Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) took to the Senate floor June 18 and tapped the brakes on a powerful appropriator’s plan to subject NASA’s commercial crew program to strict federal accounting standards the agency waived when it solicited bids for crew transportation in November.

Nelson, the chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, said NASA’s commercial crew program to fly astronauts to and from the international space station aboard commercially designed spacecraft needs “the right mix of oversight and innovation” to start ferrying crews by NASA’s target date of late 2017.

The senior senator from Florida was alluding to a directive Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, personally fought to include in a report appended to a spending bill now awaiting debate on the Senate floor, and which would if signed into law require NASA to either comply with section 15.403-4 of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, or risk a legal mandate to do so.

Nelson said he wanted to work with Shelby “as the bill goes to the conference committee to make sure that we have the right mix of oversight and innovation in how NASA contracts for this competition.”

The competition Nelson referred to is NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities contract, which could be awarded as soon as July. Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are all vying for an award under the fourth major round of the commercial crew program, which would provide financial assistance for final development and certification of at least one commercially designed space system, and order at least one contracted crew round trip to the international space station around late 2017.

NASA insists that waiving certain parts of the Federal Acquisition Regulations, which the agency may legally do in certain situations, is vital to getting a commercially designed system safely up and running. Since the space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011, NASA has paid Russia to take astronauts to the station aboard Soyuz space capsules. Under the latest contract, which runs through June 2017, each astronaut round trip on the Russian spacecraft costs roughly $70 million. 

Nelson’s decision to revisit Shelby’s bill-report language puts a major player in the corner of commercial crew advocates such as the Washington-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation and the grassroots Space Access Society, which publicly slammed Shelby’s plan not long after the plan became public following the Senate Appropriations Committee’s June 5 approval of a 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill that includes $17.9 billion for NASA.

It is not clear whether that bill, which has now been rolled up into a so-called “minibus” appropriations package with two other bills, will get a vote on the Senate floor before lawmakers leave Washington for a week-long recess ahead of the July 4 U.S. holiday. Procedural votes on bringing the package forward began June 17 and continued June 18. 

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Senate Spending Bill Includes $17.9 Billion for NASA

Correction: A previous version referred to NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities contract as NASA’s Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities contract.

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...