The investigation by a congressional panel into NASA’s contract with Zero Gravity Corp. (Zero-G) for microgravity training and research flights aboard the company’s G-Force One aircraft has the smell of a fishing expedition prompted by institutional opponents of the deal.
According to a Democratic staffer with the House Science and Technology investigations and oversight subcommittee, which is conducting the probe, lawmakers are concerned about Zero-G’s commitment to what could become its biggest and most important customer – NASA. Other sources said there are questions about the cost of using G-Force One versus NASA’s own modified C-9 aircraft, something the space agency has already studied.
These concerns could well be genuine. Unfortunately, however, the subcommittee has shown a willingness to accept whatever it hears from detractors of Zero-G’s contract.
The most glaring example is the false – and somewhat comical – allegation that Zero-G rented out G-Force One for a weightless scene in an installment of the infamous “Girls Gone Wild” video series. This alleged incident was referenced by Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.), the subcommittee’s chairman, in an April 15 letter to NASA requesting information on the Zero-G contract.
As it turns out, Zero-G did no such thing, according to both the company and a top executive for “Girls Gone Wild” producer Mantra Films. There is in fact such a video, but Mantra maintains it contracted with a Russian company for the flight.
Rep. Miller did not make his letter public – a tactic often employed when the goal is to generate opposition to something – and immediately retracted the allegation upon learning it wasn’t true. But the damage was done: not so much to Zero-G – which had it cooperated with Mantra would have been guilty of nothing other than abetting a production of questionable taste – as to the investigation itself.
With one or two phone calls, or even a Google search, the investigations and oversight subcommittee might have debunked the “Girls Gone Wild” rumor. Instead, Rep. Miller repeated it without confirmation in an official letter, which at minimum raises questions about the subcommittee’s due diligence on the rest of the allegations, including Zero-G’s supposed lack of commitment to NASA.
In any event, Zero-G’s contract hardly represents a headlong, do-or-die plunge into the commercialization of NASA’s weightless flight services. On the contrary, the deal’s value will range anywhere from $300,000 to $25.4 million, depending on how many flights the company conducts over a five-year period. In the meantime, NASA is not giving up the C-9, which it acquired in 2003 and spent several million dollars to modify. The deal is what it should be: a tryout for Zero-G, one in which the company has every incentive to perform since NASA has the potential to become an anchor customer.
Cost comparisons between G-Force One and the C-9 are and always will be tricky, since any number of factors and assumptions could tilt the analysis in one direction or another. Suffice it to say that NASA believes the two are at least in the same ballpark, since otherwise the agency likely would have been disinclined to make the award.
Exactly who or what prompted Rep. Miller’s investigation is not clear. But it is no secret that there are some at NASA who view Zero-G as a threat to C-9 operations, which are managed at Johnson Space Center in Houston; the probe was hatched following a visit to Johnson by members of the subcommittee’s Democratic staff.
It would be rash, and thus wrong, to dismiss the possibility that the probe will find that NASA somehow set the parameters of its G-Force One cost analysis in a way that makes it look more attractive than it should. It is only fair to expect that the subcommittee similarly refrain from jumping to conclusions and let the evidence speak for itself. In this regard, nothing will speak more authoritatively of Zero-G’s potential to provide value to NASA and the U.S. taxpayer than the company’s actual performance under this contract.