Hutchison Praises Commercial Crew Compromise

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) said she will be able to end her nearly 20-year Senate career knowing that NASA and Congress reached a sound compromise on the agency’s plan to turn astronaut transportation to the international space station over to private operators.

“I feel like I will be able to now leave Congress at the end of this year knowing that we are going to have a commercial operation that is sound,” the longtime NASA champion said June 12 at a breakfast hosted here by Women in Aerospace. She retires this year.

Hutchison spoke a week after Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, dropped his demand that NASA fund a single company during the third round of the Commercial Crew Program, which NASA calls Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap). At least four companies are competing for awards worth $300 million to $500 million apiece over a 21 month performance period. The technology development funds are to be used for an integrated crew vehicle and launcher. Awards are expected by August.

In exchange for allowing multiple participants in CCiCap — a maximum of three proposals could be funded, although the third award would be a smaller “partial award” — Wolf said he obtained concessions from NASA. These include a promise to reveal more details about the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR)-type contracts NASA will use for follow-on work to CCiCap, including spacecraft certification and purchasing flight services.

CCiCap, like previous rounds of the Commercial Crew Program, will use Space Act Agreements instead of more restrictive FAR-type contracts. But NASA plans to switch to FAR-type contracts for the spacecraft certification and flight services phases of the program.

A NASA lawyer said the agency is preparing the framework for CCiCap follow-on contracts, but that it is not ready to discuss details.

“NASA hasn’t actually laid out yet a full and fleshed-out plan to get from the Space Act Agreement context, where we are now, into a services mode,” said Courtney Graham, associate general counsel at NASA headquarters. “That’s something we’re currently working on.”

Graham said NASA plans to share the follow-on acquisition plan with the companies bidding under CCiCap as soon as there is something to share. She did not say when that might be.

“Given the novelty of trying to develop a human spaceflight capability in this context, the agency has not been willing to commit to a path forward under a particular timeframe,” said Graham, who spoke just a few hours after Hutchison June 12. Graham was part of a daylong space law event hosted nearby on Capitol Hill by the American Bar Association.

Commercial crew is a signature effort for the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama. For the past two years, the White House has requested more than $800 million in annual funding for the program. In 2012, lawmakers approved $406 million for the program. Spending bills produced by the House and Senate this year would provide $500 million and $525 million, respectively, for 2013. Wolf has now agreed to fund the program at the Senate-approved level, but it is not clear that any 2013 appropriations bills will be signed before 2012 funding runs out and forces Congress to pass stop-gap funding measures that would freeze appropriations at this year’s level.

Meanwhile, Congress provided about $3 billion in 2012 for the Space Launch System heavy rocket, its companion Orion crew capsule, and their supporting ground infrastructure. Spending bills produced by the House and Senate would provide about the same for 2013. These deep-space exploration vehicles are Hutchison’s top space priority and she has accused the White House of diverting funds from them to increase the Commercial Crew Program budget.

The Johnson Space Center in Houston is the lead NASA center for Orion work. Mission Control in Houston would run the Space Launch System and Orion missions, only two of which have been announced: an uncrewed flight around the Moon in 2017 and a crewed version of the same mission in 2021.