The highly polarized debate on the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program has been difficult to watch, but also hard not to watch. With time slipping away this year for action on NASA authorization and appropriations bills, some on the Hill are trying to find a consensus on a compromise path forward before too much time is lost, but no path has yet to be fully fleshed out or tested by a vote. Is there a third way forward? There is, if people want it.

The fiscal realities weigh heavily on NASA’s future, especially as some are calling for cuts to discretionary spending. NASA has often escaped the knife in the past, but a poorly focused program with fractured political support makes it ripe for the taking. If there isn’t a compromise, then it becomes more likely that U.S. human spaceflight will continue its retreat.

As Winston Churchill once said, “Gentlemen, we have run out of money. Now we must think.” And so, we must think through this very complicated, intertwined political, programmatic, policy problem, but the debate has not shed much light on the possibilities for compromise, and many questions remain.

Can NASA afford two crew vehicle programs, the Orion/crew rescue option and a commercial crew program? Is keeping both programs really worth the sacrifice likely to be made on technology investments critical to enabling exploration beyond Earth orbit? Is this, as the Augustine report stated, “perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources?” If the Orion/CRV only serves as a lifeboat, then that’s not much useful capability for the estimated $4 billion to $7 billion price tag (the equivalent of the James Webb Space Telescope), especially when the crew escape capability could be provided by a commercial crew vehicle, should it be decided so.

On commercial crew, many on the Hill have voiced deep concerns that NASA would be betting the farm on unproven commercial suppliers with no proven track record. This allegation might or might not be true, depending on who is selected, but that’s not where the real problem is. A more fundamental issue with commercial crew is that NASA intends to use a fixed-price acquisition approach, and therein lies a recipe for disaster. Fixed-price contracts are not well-suited for complex and risky technical developments, such as a new spacecraft design. While fixed-price contracts make it easy for the government to predict budgets, it does this by foisting maximum risk on the contractor, who may or may not be prepared for it.

The concerns with a fixed-price commercial crew program are many. Why would a company sign up to a fixed-price arrangement, given the uncertainty in requirements, uncertainty in what NASA’s role will be and how “aggressively” they’ll manage the program, as well as NASA’s track record on starts/stops and mission creep. How would bidders account for all the risks and unknowns — all important drivers for technical, cost and schedule? How will the government determine a fair and reasonable price if there is significant uncertainty? The most likely answer is that bidders will increase the price to accommodate those risks, otherwise they’re betting the company on the job. Some experts have said that to cover the risks and unknowns a fixed-price procurement could be as much as 50 percent higher than the bid price would be under a traditional cost-plus approach. Why would the government pursue a path that is simultaneously riskier and more expensive? NASA apparently has already signaled it’s prepared to bail out commercial crew suppliers if they get in trouble, and that speaks volumes. The current approach is flawed, but luckily it’s fixable — without giving up the goal of fostering new commercial human spaceflight markets.

So, what to do? A potential alternative to ponder: America’s Program for Exploration — APEX (everything needs a name and an acronym). Combine the best of Orion and commercial crew to close the gap, reduce our reliance on international suppliers, and develop a domestic capability for crew transportation; not just for NASA astronauts, but for all Americans who want to go to space.

First step, NASA and potential private users, such as Bigelow and others, should jointly work out top-level performance requirements for an integrated crew transportation program (e.g., number of crew, performance, lifetime, etc.). A scaled-back Orion could potentially serve as the basis for the new vehicle, but that would depend on how closely the combined NASA and commercial requirements match up to Orion, so that’s a possibility but not a foregone conclusion. The objective is to balance capabilities against cost, with strong emphasis on reducing recurring cost. Think of it as the space equivalent of the Willys Jeep — an all-purpose inexpensive and robust vehicle that serves both government needs and commercial users’ needs. More capability could eventually be added through a spiral development program to meet deep space exploration needs.

NASA should implement the program through a small dedicated program office using a traditional cost-plus contracting approach. If implemented properly, this approach balances risk more appropriately, and increases the probability of success.

Second step, leverage the investment already made in Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELV) and human rate those vehicles. With sufficient performance, a proven flight record, and a comprehensive mission assurance program already in place, EELVs offer the quickest and safest path to close the gap on the launcher side. Leveraging existing EELVs would dramatically reduce the burden on NASA’s budget by alleviating the need to develop a new 25 metric-ton class launcher. For example, NASA’s projected budget last year for Ares 1 from FY11 through FY15 totaled $8 billion, while Delta 4 could be human-rated for a fraction of that cost, primarily because the development risk for Delta 4 has already been retired and the vehicle is flying today. Atlas 5 is an equally viable option depending on the size of the crew vehicle. NASA should also consider an on-ramp to new launch entrants to provide an opportunity for new players to compete.

Last step, once the new system is operated for a few flights and operating costs are well-understood, NASA should transition to a fixed price operations contract and allow private users to use/rent/lease it at the marginal cost of flight, enabling them to open up the market for commercial human spaceflight.

The benefits are clear. NASA wouldn’t have to bet the nation’s $100 billion investment in the international space station on a risky acquisition approach, our reliance on Russian Soyuz rides would be eliminated, and private users would get use of a high quality system without taking unnecessary risks or having to put in money up front.

This is certainly not the only compromise possible, but a candidate to consider. There are no easy or perfect answers, but the discussion needs to begin to find the middle ground that puts the program on a steady and sustainable course.