Zero G's G Force One

WASHINGTON — Taking issue with the quality of weightless flight services NASA has been buying from Zero Gravity Corp. (Zero G) since 2008, the space agency’s chief auditor says the contract should be restructured to motivate better performance from the Vienna, Va.-based firm, according to a June 18 report issued by the NASA inspector general.

In the report, NASA Inspector General Paul Martin found that the $4.8 million contract NASA entered into with Zero G more than two years ago “does not motivate consistent, high-quality performance on the part of the contractor” because the so-called indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity agreement is based on a payment structure originally designed to encourage bidding on the contract.

Zero G, which has flown thousands of private citizens aboard  specially equipped Boeing 727 aircraft since launching its parabolic flight service in 2004, signed NASA as a customer in January 2008 following an open competition.

“However, Zero G was the sole bidder on the contract,” the inspector general’s report states, adding that the payment structure resulted in Zero G earning the lion’s share of the value of issued task orders — roughly 94 percent — even though only a comparatively small fraction of the parabolas Zero G flew for NASA during the first year of the contract met the contracted specifications.

At press time June 18, Zero G co-founder Peter Diamandis said he had not read the report.

Led by the Johnson Space Center in Houston, NASA’s parabolic flight program has operated its own modified aircraft to conduct microgravity flight tests since 1973. Under the direction of NASA’s Space Operations Mission Directorate, the reduced-gravity program provides the simulated weightlessness of a zero-gravity spaceflight environment for test and training purposes. Although NASA currently relies on Zero G to provide parabolic flight services to meet its test and training needs, the program maintains a U.S. Navy C-9 aircraft in “flyable storage” at Ellington Field, Houston, as a contingency capability should Zero G cease providing microgravity flight services to the agency.

“However, NASA management had not adequately considered the cost of maintaining the C-9 in an operational status nor analyzed the potential that using the C-9 may not meet its needs for microgravity flight services and had not developed a formal plan to mitigate that risk,” the report found, adding that while Zero G has affirmed its commitment to fulfilling its NASA contract — estimated to be worth more than $25 million through 2012 if all options are exercised — the company is the sole domestic commercial provider of weightless flight services.

In addition, the review found that NASA’s payments to Zero G of approximately $2 million over a two-year period were consistent with contract terms, with the exception of a $23,000 overpayment that auditors attributed to “math errors.”

The report recommended that NASA negotiate a revised performance-based payment structure to provide greater incentives for Zero G to deliver more consistent, high-quality microgravity flight services and develop a risk management plan for meeting microgravity flight needs if Zero G is unwilling or unable to do so.

Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator for space operations, agreed with the audit’s findings, but said restructuring the Zero G deal three years into the contract is not feasible.

“Although it is not practical to do so at this time, we intend to redefine the payment structure during development of the follow-on microgravity contract procurement strategy to ensure customers pay only for consistent, high-quality parabolas,” he wrote in a June 14 response to the audit.