WASHINGTON — Breaking from the strategy it used in the first two rounds of its commercial crew development (CCDev) program, NASA said it intends to use a traditional procurement process governed by the Federal Acquisition Regulations to fund its contribution to the next phases of work on privately owned human spaceflight systems.

NASA awarded Space Act Agreements (SAA) for the first and second phases of CCDev. Under those arrangements, companies developing launch or crew transportation systems are paid upon meeting self-imposed milestones developed with NASA input.

But NASA said SAAs may not be suitable for the next phase of commercial crew development because the agency wants that effort to yield an integrated transportation system, comprising a rocket and a crew-carrying vehicle, that NASA would then certify as safe for ferrying astronauts to the international space station.

As part of the certification process, NASA would have to dictate some safety design requirements to its industry partners. NASA does not have that authority under the SAA framework, according to  former astronaut Brent Jett, deputy program manager for the agency’s commercial crew program.

Under an SAA, NASA requirements “can only be held out as reference for industry to use, if they so choose,” Jett said July 20 in a public briefing with industry at the Kennedy Space Center, Fla. Moreover, “even if industry chooses to design to those requirements, NASA is not allowed to tie any of the milestones in an SAA to any of those requirements,” he said.

Commercial spaceflight industry representatives immediately challenged that assumption, citing the lack of a formal legal opinion from NASA that would pre-empt the use of SAA’s for funding the full-scale development of privately owned astronaut transport craft.

It is “very clear that there are many strategies under which the third round of CCDev can be executed via the SAA” Mike Gold, an attorney with Bigelow Aerospace of North Las Vegas, Nev., said in a July 21 telephone interview. “I have had informal discussions with both the [Government Accountability Office] and NASA’s Office of the General Counsel that have led me to this conclusion.”

He declined to identify the federal officials with whom he spoke, citing the informality of the discussions. Bigelow Aerospace is developing inflatable space habitats and has placed two prototypes in orbit.

Brett Alexander, a space industry consultant who counts among his clients the secretive aerospace startup Blue Origin of Kent, Wash., said at the July 20 briefing that industry needs to know NASA’s legal reasoning for dismissing SAAs as an option for the next CCDev round.

“From an industry standpoint … we’re kind of flying blind because [NASA] has not divulged what its legal reasoning is, and I think they need to do that in writing. Not a couple charts, not things that you brief, but a legal brief that says ‘here’s why’” a traditional procurement is necessary.

Alexander also said some of NASA’s public pronouncements on contracting options, including a July report from the agency’s Office of the Inspector General, suggest that SAAs could indeed be used in future commercial crew development efforts.

Alexander is the former president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation here, a trade group for entrepreneurial space companies.

NASA spokespersons Katherine Trinidad and Michael Braukus did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

Both Jett and Ed Mango, NASA’s commercial crew program manager, stressed that the agency was open to suggestions about its procurement strategy, inviting the budding commercial spaceflight industry to make the case for its preferred contracting mechanism, the SAA. The deadline for doing so is Aug. 3, according to a procurement notice released by NASA hours after the commercial crew strategy forum at the Kennedy Space Center.

In that document, NASA said its “proposed strategy is to release a draft [request for proposals] in late summer of 2011 for the Commercial Crew Program Integrated Design Contracts.” The Integrated Design Contracts would effectively be CCDev contracts in a Federal Acquisition Regulations mode.

Work under those contracts, tentatively slated for award in the second quarter of 2012, would take place over two years and include the critical design review of full astronaut taxi systems — a launcher and crew vessel. A critical design review is a performance benchmark where NASA certifies that a system’s design meets the agency’s goals. It is required before contractors can begin construction work.

Next, in early 2014, CCDev would enter the development, test, evaluation and certification phase, which would include the first mission to the international space station in 2017. With the space shuttle fleet now retired, NASA will fly astronauts to the space station on Russia’s Soyuz space capsule until commercial alternatives from U.S. providers are available. By law, NASA only has authority to purchase seats on Soyuz capsules through 2016.

Even if NASA opts for a traditional procurement in the next CCDev phase, Mango said there appears to be wiggle room within the Federal Acquisition Regulations framework to relieve commercial space companies of some of the complex administrative prescriptions associated with these contracts.

“We absolutely want to minimize our administrative overhead burden,” Mango said during the briefing. “We believe that we are much closer to an SAA in our approach than we are to a traditional contract.”

For example, Mango said, the approach NASA has in mind would continue the milestone payment scheme used in previous CCDev rounds. It would also exempt awardees from the strict federal cost accounting standards associated with the traditional procurement process.

Commercial spaceflight advocates say traditional procurement contracts slow down development and create massive cost overruns by imposing strict federal accounting standards and giving government essentially limitless control over the design process. Some industry hopefuls have built into their business models the assumption that they would not have to comply with Federal Acquisition Regulations to provide crew transport services to NASA.

Traditional NASA contractors have argued that exempting some companies from these requirements tilts the playing field and stifles their ability to compete.



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.