US Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) gives introductory remarks during an event where President Barack Obama outlined a bold new course the administration is charting to maintain U.S. leadership in human space flight at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. on Thursday, April 15, 2010. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) squared off the week of June 16 for a showdown over holding NASA’s commercial crew program to stricter financial reporting standards, but a final confrontation was averted when partisan squabbling derailed votes on a spending bill at the center of the debate.

The Senate was poised to begin voting June 19 on a so-called minibus spending package that combined the House-passed 2015 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill (H.R. 4660) with the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development and Agriculture spending bills. But a fight over how amendments would be handled prompted Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to indefinitely postpone floor action on the $126 billion spending package. 

The day before the procedural impasse dampened appropriators’ hopes for getting a host of 2015 budget bills done before the July 4 recess, Shelby — the Senate Appropriations Committee’s ranking Republican — took to the floor to defend his call for making NASA’s effort to put astronauts on commercially designed spaceships by 2017 comply with the strict federal accounting standards in section 15.403-4 of the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR).

“Those efforts must continue in a transparent way, I believe, to ensure that the government is not saddled with mounting bills and no recourse,” Shelby said June 18. He said the purpose of the mandate, included in the report accompanying the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill the Senate Appropriations Committee approved June 5, “is not to upend a fixed-price contract [but] to make certain that the price NASA has agreed to pay for vehicle development matches actual development expenditures.”

Shelby’s explanation apparently did not quiet Nelson’s concerns. The chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee took to the Senate floor later the same day to tap the brakes on Shelby’s plan to subject the already FAR-compliant Commercial Crew Transportation Capability Contract to accounting rules NASA sought to waive when it solicited bids for crew transportation in November.

Nelson said NASA’s 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 the agency’s target date of late 2017.

Although report language does not carry the force of law, Shelby’s directive would effectively force NASA to either comply with section 15.403-4 of the FAR, or risk a legal mandate to do so in the next appropriations cycle.

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.”

With no clear timetable for bringing the bill back to the floor, time is running out for the House and Senate to convene a conference committee to iron out any differences between the bill the House sent over and what ultimately makes it through the Senate. Congress has fewer than 30 legislative days left on the calendar before breaking for November’s midterm elections.

Meanwhile, NASA’s Commercial Crew Transportation Capabilities contract 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 FAR, 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 opposition to Shelby’s report language put 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 it became public.

If NASA were forced to comply with Section 15 of the FAR, “it would undercut the strength of the program, which is acquiring services through competitively-bid, low-overhead means,” Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and a former astronaut, wrote in a June 19 email. “By delaying and expanding the cost of the program, it would ensure we remain dependent on Russian spacecraft for longer and waste our investment in the international space station.”

Lopez-Alegria, a self-described commercial space convert, also warned that if the 2015 minibus becomes law with Shelby’s bill report language intact, NASA might have to restart competition for the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability contract. The competition now underway assumed bidders would not have to comply with the part of the FAR to which Shelby wants to subject the program.

The Obama administration, too, was bothered by Shelby’s report language and said so in a June 17 statement of administration policy.

Although it urged passage of the minibus spending bill, the White House said it “has concerns about language that would seek to apply accounting requirements unsuitable for a firm, fixed-price acquisition, likely increasing the program’s cost and potentially delaying its schedule.”

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

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...